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One in five American men don't work: Where's the outrage?

July 25, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Lawmakers in Washington are ignoring the real problem: A generation is losing work skills. We need to fix that.

By Nina Easton, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- Has anyone in Washington noticed that 20% of American men are not working? That's right. One out of five men in this country are collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paychecks of wives or girlfriends or parents. The equivalent number in 1970, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, was 7%.

Both political parties have proven their talent in ginning up outrage over the federal budget, whether it's spiraling spending or millionaires collecting tax breaks on private jets. So today a tiresome, and dangerous, debt drama unfolds in real time, freezing leaders in both parties in their respective partisan corners. Are these same leaders capable of confronting the fearsome fact that 4.3 million Americans have been jobless not just for months--but going on years? We are in danger of losing a generation of work-habituated Americans, especially men--and lawmakers can't see their way past November, 2012.

This is a conversation that goes beyond a stubbornly high 9.2% unemployment rate and last week's unnerving news that company layoffs are ticking up again. While we all know there is a job shortage, employers are increasingly talking about a "talent shortage" -- they can't find qualified workers even for the jobs that are available. "We found that 30% of companies surveyed had openings for six months or longer, and can't find the right person," says Susan Lund, research director for the McKinsey Global Institute.

With slack demand, companies can afford to be pickier about who they hire -- and commonly steal away already-employed workers rather than dip into a riskier pool of people who have been out of work for months or years. "As long as there is slow demand, [they say] 'I can delay hiring and when I do hire a person it's the perfect person,'" says Jeff Joerres, president and CEO of ManpowerGroup.

Google (GOOG) has anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 jobs open at any given time that take months and months to fill, says Laszlo Bock, the company's senior vice president of people operations. And it's not just computer and engineering skills that companies need. Frits van Paasschen, CEO of the Starwood (HOT) hotel chain, says "we have a whole set of jobs"—like international tax accountant—"where we can't find" qualified applicants. Joerres says the No. 1 need for companies right now is sales person: Someone skilled not only in personal relations but also able to master the details of an integrated supply chain.

All three executives spoke at an Atlantic magazine-sponsored jobs forum last week that exposed a stark disconnect between the jobs that are available—and the increasingly rusty skill-sets of those who are unemployed, especially for long periods of time. People have "no idea what skills they should have to find a job," says Bock.

That's a place where businesses have to start stepping up to the plate. It's true that McKinsey reports an expansion of training programs. And there are companies like Delta partnering with a state university to produce airline-ready managers and associations like the Manufacturing Institute working with community colleges on certificate programs. But Joerres says a lot of companies don't offer training for prospective employees because—with slack consumer demand and weak job market—they don't have to. "If they don't have to, they aren't going to," he says.

The longer a worker is unemployed, the farther he or she falls behind in sellable skills in a fast-paced global economy. But there is an even more fundamental question behind the rise in long-term employed rates: Are our public policies contributing to the rise of millions of Americans who lose the habit of work?

Whether you believe (as some economists do) that unemployment insurance discourages immediate job searching—or not—it's worth asking whether the American "unemployment" system should more closely follow a program like Germany's "re-employment" system, which cut stubborn long-term unemployment rates in that country.

And then there is federal disability insurance, where the percent of American adults collecting checks has doubled since 1989 -- even though the American population isn't any less healthy, or more mentally disabled (the fastest growing disability claim). "It is difficult to overstate the role that the [disability program] plays in discouraging…the ongoing employment of non-elderly adults," concludes a study by MIT's David H. Autor and the University of Maryland's Mark Duggan.

If that's not enough to grab the attention of political leaders, here's a 10-year peek into the future of the U.S. labor force if current trends continue: A continued expansion of workers collecting income from disability rolls plus another four million high school dropouts--on top of today's 15.4 million.

And yet, according to a ManpowerGroup report, at the same time companies will face an "acute talent shortage."

Where's the outrage over that?

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