“The future ain’t what it used to be,” Yogi Berra famously said. Nowhere is that more true than in the current economy and job market. Powerful forces, including the mobility of capital and explosive growth of the global labor supply, are altering the terms of economic competition for American workers and the living standards they have enjoyed.
The frustrations of unemployed workers and young people looking to join the work force are rising while our business and political leaders fail to act decisively. Coming off the worst recession in over 70 years, with job growth recovering at the slowest pace in 70 years, we need more yet get less from these leaders.
Over 14 million workers in America remain officially unemployed, with over 6 million of these workers unemployed for six months or longer. The U.S. economy shed 7 million payroll jobs in the Great Recession and thus far signs of recovery are weak at best.
In Maine, more than 50,000 workers have either lost jobs or taken cuts in hours and wages. Maine jobs went from 620,500 in April 2008 to 591,000 in September 2010. The latest official economic forecast for Maine predicts employment in 2015 will still be nearly 3,000 less than in early 2008. Meanwhile, over 10,000 graduates from the University of Maine System alone entered the labor market between 2008 and 2010.
For unemployed workers the ground shifted under their feet. For young people the portal to work moved from one door to another, with greater uncertainty about which door to choose. Reality has changed for both groups.
Skills valued in the past may not be valued in the future.
In July of 2011, the Maine Department of Labor reported that among its 24,000 unemployment insurance claimants over 1,600 individuals had previously worked in low skill-level production occupations and made a good living. Thousands of other Maine workers share a similar predicament. These workers will not very likely ever return to the jobs they left behind.
On the other hand, Maine employers in health care, information technology and business and professional services complain about not finding workers with the right skills. Maine’s health services sector hired on average over 3,000 new workers during each quarter of 2010 and in the category of professional, scientific and technical services, over 1,000 new workers were hired.
Current projections of high-wage, in-demand jobs in Maine indicate annual openings almost evenly distributed among jobs that require a high school diploma or less, those that require at least some college education, and those that require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Many of these jobs require specific education or training if not also specific licensing or certification. The range of education expected varies, but an education focused on marketable skills development is a common thread throughout.
A recent study from Manpower Inc. reported 52 percent of U.S. employers experienced difficulty in filling mission-critical positions, up from 14 percent in 2010. As the terms of global competitiveness are changing so, too, are workplaces, by demanding higher order skills.
This new economic dynamism demands more innovation from our education and training systems in a resource-constrained environment. Peter Capelli, a noted human resource expert, recently opined on The Wall Street Journal opinion pages that employers, too, need to shoulder more responsibility for training workers and ensuring competitive compensation to overcome the skills gaps.
Job creation and work force development are the two most powerful drivers of our economic future. If we are to once again bring these powerful forces into alignment, we need resolve, strategies and coordinated investments. To bring this about, we need leadership at every level.
Our changed economic conditions suggest we can no longer wait for an invisible hand to pull us out. Nor will we be able to simply throw more money at the problem and get effective results.
Shared commitment equals shared prosperity. A renewed commitment to building a future together is needed.
We need a highly disciplined political process to shape the vision. We need entrepreneurs and business leaders to put in place the investment and production functions to achieve it. We need American workers to acquire and apply their skills and ingenuity.
We need education systems to step up and adequately prepare students for life in the work force. We need political leaders and institutions to focus on assuring greater opportunities for business development and rapid job creation.
We need to answer the question: “What might an effective vision be for this new paradigm?”
John Dorrer, of Brunswick, retired recently as chief economist for the Maine Department of Labor where he directed the Center for Workforce Research & Information. David R. Clough, of Yarmouth, is a longtime public policy advocate for small business owners and temporary staffing companies.