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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

As this election year continues, we're sure to be hearing dueling economic plans. All the candidates, including President Obama, are trying to set themselves apart with unique promises to right the financial ship.

But as NPR's Ari Shapiro explains, there is at least one area where their ideas intersect.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: There are not many things that Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney all agree on, but there is this.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is time to turn our unemployment system into a re-employment system that puts...

NEWT GINGRICH: If you need unemployment compensation, you also sign up for a training program run by a business.

MITT ROMNEY: That means great training programs for people who want to come back on the workforce.

SHAPIRO: Job-training programs for unemployed people. Of course, these men disagree on the details, and we'll get to those differences in a moment. But at face value, they agree that worker re-education, in some form, is a useful solution to the country's unemployment problem.

And economist Gary Burtless, of the Brookings Institution, says they're right - if the programs are designed well.

GARY BURTLESS: The basic idea is, you want to train people in occupations and industries where there are growing needs for workers, and quickly get people out of the industries that are shrinking.

That may sound obvious, but there are many instances where job-training programs prepare people for a field that's not hiring; or they provide general education that might look good on a resume but doesn't lead to a job. And even the best programs require highly motivated workers. Still, when the system works...

DR. LISA MACON: Every single intern I've ever supervised - in 13 years of teaching here - has been offered a full-time position at the end of the internship, at the company where they interned.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Lisa Macon chairs the information technology program at Valencia College in Orlando. Last year, the Aspen Institute, in Washington, ranked Valencia the top community college in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION)

MACON: So what we were supposed to do for this week was watch three videos: segments three, four and five. I know you all did that, right?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yes.

MACON: Excellent, good work. And the...

SHAPIRO: On this day, she's teaching the latest computer programming languages. Some of her students learned computer programming decades ago and need to update their skills. Then there are people like Brian Peine.

BRIAN PEINE: Basically, two years ago, I was with a large bank. And with all the mess that happened in the financial industry, everybody was downsizing. I got kind of caught up in that mess.

SHAPIRO: He couldn't get rehired. Then one day, he was talking to an engineer at NASA.

PEINE: He helped build, kind of, my career path and said, listen, if you do these things, you know, I can get you over as an internship at NASA.

Ultimately, I want to be in robotics.

SHAPIRO: That's the kind of story everyone applauds. During his State of the Union address, President Obama said he wants to put more people on this sort of path.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: The next morning, Mitt Romney pointed to a report by the Government Accountability Office suggesting that the country does not need more workforce training programs.

ROMNEY: Do you know we have 47 different workforce training programs in Washington now? Forty-seven, reporting to eight different agencies. All this money goes to the bureaucrats and the administrators and the overhead.

SHAPIRO: He proposed shrinking them down to just one program. Economist Gary Burtless says there's surely room for improving efficiency.

BURTLESS: But if you actually look at the numbers - how much does a country spend on this activity? - the United States ranks near the bottom among rich countries. We don't spend a lot of money on this kind of activity.

SHAPIRO: There's a separate problem, though. If worker retraining is to be the silver bullet that ends the unemployment crisis, there would have to be the same number of American jobs now as there were five years ago, just in different fields. And of course, that's not how the economy works.

BURTLESS: If we had a perfect training system and a perfect retraining system, we might be able to drop the unemployment rate currently, by 2/10 or 3/10 of a percentage point.

SHAPIRO: That's not much when unemployment is at 8.5 percent. In the long run, Burtless says, a good worker retraining program helps the general health of an economy. But in the short run, even if people of both parties can come together behind these proposals, a few tenths of a percentage point will not fix the job market.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Jacksonville, Florida.

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