Reeducation is Money Well Spent

By Kellyn Brown

The much lauded and criticized federal stimulus plan has now passed. Montana’s U.S. lawmakers are back on the trail to defend their votes one way or another. The bill will either “bloat the federal government” or “create millions of good-paying jobs” – depending on who’s talking. What exactly is in the plan is still not entirely clear, but I hope it includes at least some worthwhile pork, like this:

I suppose the federally funded reeducation programs that students at Flathead Valley Community College and other schools have been taking advantage of could be considered wasteful. But for a country that has been plagued by millions of layoffs, it’s just the kind of program that should instead be embraced.

As of last week, more than 100 Flathead Valley residents who have lost their jobs in recent months had enrolled in the programs and are now new students at the school. They are learning everything from carpentry to welding to how to operate heavy machinery. They must prove that whatever skill they choose to learn will be marketable when they finish, at a time in the hopefully not-too-distant future when the area economy may look a little less gloomy.

And all of these students, many of whom haven’t opened a textbook in decades, are getting an education paid for by Uncle Sam. It’s the least he could do after handing out billions in taxpayer dollars to save failing banks.

That some of the largest employers in the Flathead have trimmed their payrolls since this recession has begun has been well documented. What has not, and what Beacon reporter Keriann Lynch tried to find out in this edition, is how many of these newly unemployed workers are spending their time.

Who can blame men and women who have worked for the same company for years for fearing the future, or even holing up and quietly collecting unemployment benefits? And while I don’t envy those who have no other choice but to look for a job in a tough market, it’s encouraging that some have an alternative – one that should be expanded.

Right now, the re-education option is only available to a few, federally selected employers who cut staff. And for all the wasteful spending on the state and federal level, you would think bureaucrats could find money to include a wider variety of businesses, large and small that qualify – at least in the short-term.

President Barack Obama has claimed that the stimulus bill doesn’t include any earmarks, or pork, but the Associated Press disagreed, arguing: “There are no ‘earmarks,’ as they are usually defined, inserted by lawmakers in the bill. Still, some of the projects bear the prime characteristics of pork – tailored to benefit specific interests or to have thinly disguised links to local projects.”

The AP cited money set aside for batteries for hybrid cars, a polar icebreaker for the Coast Guard and millions for urban canals. A large portion of the bill is allocated for education, and there is even money for job retraining programs. But the latter shouldn’t be contingent upon what company a person was fired from.

For the federal government to use some of its billions to shoulder the costs of schooling the unemployed can only help the overall economy and the morale of those laid off. Money spent on FVCC tuitions will mostly re-circulate through the valley. And an educated workforce, in theory, can help the local economy rebound more quickly.

The stimulus plan certainly includes waste. But the re-education program should be expanded, and more unemployed workers should be lured back to school while they wait for this recession to turn.

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