Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ isolationist and protectionist ideas are backward-thinking. Instead, the United States needs to create a competitive workforce for 21st century jobs.

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During Donald Trump’s trip to Lynden on May 7, jobs and trade took center stage in his stump speech — a message that has resonated across the country. His appeal in part is with the disenfranchised, alienated and unemployed workers who have lost, or fear losing, jobs overseas — to automation, economic downturns or for other reasons.

“The trade deals are a disaster,” Trump said, citing the loss of manufacturing jobs, including those in Whatcom County. Talking to a Seattle Times reporter, Michelle Zylstra of Lynden said Trump would “take us back to the good old days, when everyone worked for a living.”

Donald Trump held a campaign rally at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden on May 7. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
Donald Trump held a campaign rally at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden on May 7. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

But why should we be looking back to the “good old days” and protecting jobs for which the U.S. has lost its competitive edge? We should instead be looking forward and thinking how the U.S. economy can create a workforce to compete globally in the 21st century.

If Trump’s bare-bones messages resonate so loudly with the jobless and others who are struggling economically, something is clearly wrong with how we treat, train and educate the workforce — and its needs should be addressed.

So instead of protectionist and isolationist rhetoric from Trump — and Bernie Sanders, too, on free trade — our political priorities should be creating a competitive, flexible workforce able to attract business and to adapt to the changing global economic environment.

There is a solution: “flexicurity.” It’s a system of “flexibility” in free markets mixed with government-run safety nets providing “security” for citizens. Flexicurity has shown to work in countries to adapt to globalization, consumer demands and domestic priorities.

For instance, in Denmark — a country that Sanders idolizes for its social-safety net — a company has considerable flexibility to fire employees without union interference (Danish companies see similar employee turnover rates as U.S. companies). And the Danish economy relies heavily on free trade and an open economy.

In Denmark, there also exist coordinated-market tools — the generous safety net — to provide extensive benefits to the recently unemployed and, most important, job training and education to quickly get a worker back into the job market. The Global Competitiveness Index describes Denmark as having excellent “training programs (that have) provided the workforce with the skills needed to adapt rapidly to a changing environment.”

Politicians like Trump need to blabber less about traditional industries, free trade and jobs lost overseas and actually support the programs that help retrain the unemployed workforce.”

Contrast this to the United States, whose companies have similar worker turnover as Danish ones, but the U.S. doesn’t have the same federal comprehensive coordinated-market policies to make sure the unemployed receive ample unemployment pay, re-enter the workforce quickly, receive a similar wage and get employed in a competitive sector.

Production technicians Todd Pelland and Nicole Edward inspect a roll of “prepreg,” carbon fiber tape pre-impregnated with epoxy, at the Toray Composites America’s plant in Tacoma in 2015.  Toray’s prepreg materials are used for components of Boeing airplanes.  (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)
Production technicians Todd Pelland and Nicole Edward inspect a roll of “prepreg,” carbon fiber tape pre-impregnated with epoxy, at the Toray Composites America’s plant in Tacoma in 2015. Toray’s prepreg materials are used for components of Boeing airplanes. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)

Imagine more comprehensive “flexicurity” at work in Washington state. A lot of fuss has been made about Boeing sending jobs out of state. With “flexicurity,” this could be totally fine. For instance, the carbon-fiber and composites production industry — think Boeing 777X wing production — is rapidly growing in the state. Imagine retraining Boeing Machinists (already highly skilled) to work in this budding manufacturing sector, producing carbon-fiber elements for everything from wind turbines to Lamborghinis.

And Washington has already made strong inroads in workforce retraining. Eleni Papadakis, executive director of the state’s Workforce Training and Education Board, which receives federal dollars under the Workforce Investment Act, said the board has been structured similarly to governmental programs in Northern European countries. And Washington is the only state to use this similar model and regularly do net-impact reports to measure programs’ progress and how the workforce and employers feel about the retraining process.

But nationally, the federal measures that fund many state retraining programs have become more contentious. For instance, the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which earmarks money for those who have lost jobs as a result of foreign trade, has been grouped with other free-trade policies in Congress, such as trade-promotion authority (TPA). The support for TAA could dry up as rhetoric against free trade heats up, and it could risk not being reauthorized in the future by those who deride TPA.

Politicians like Trump need to blabber less about traditional industries, free trade and jobs lost overseas and actually support the programs that help retrain the unemployed workforce, such as the TAA.

The political slogans of the 2016 presidential election should be: “Make America Competitive Again,” “I’m With Flexicurity” or “Feel the Job Overturn.”