Should Employers Get Behind Full Employment?

By Ed Frauenheim

Apr. 29, 2009

A recent essay in the liberal-left magazine The Nation makes a bold proposal: The federal government should create a grand strategy to get nearly every American a job. Does such a full-employment policy deserve the backing of businesses?

This idea merits at least some consideration from the corporate world. After all, one of its authors is a former captain of industry–Leo Hindery Jr., who served as CEO of AT&T Broadband.

Hindery’s co-author is Donald Riegle Jr., a former U.S. senator from Michigan.

(Riegle was one of the Keating Five, faulted for his interference in a probe of failed thrift Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. He has since joined Hindery at the Smart Globalization Initiative, part of the New America Foundation think tank.)

Hindery and Riegle say the nation’s economic priority ought to be creating 24 million jobs so virtually every American interested in working can find employment and the economy can reverse course.

“The right way to earn our way back to long-term prosperity is through stimulus efforts that will help develop, broadly deploy, fairly compensate and, especially, fully employ our human capital, which will always be our greatest source of national wealth,” they write.

Part of their argument is that the official unemployment rate dramatically understates the extent of a job shortage in the U.S. While the official unemployment rate was 8.5 percent in March, a broader Department of Labor measurement of labor “underutilization” indicates the situation is nearly twice as bad. The so-called “U-6” figure adds in people who want full-time work but had to settle for a part-time schedule and “marginally attached workers,” who aren’t working or looking for work but who want and are available for a job and have looked for work in the recent past. The U-6 rate was 15.6 percent in March

Pointing to the country’s still-skimpy safety net and Hooverville-like tent cities emerging around the nation, Hindery and Riegle say the billions being funneled into the financial sector bailout and first stimulus package aren’t up to the task of getting Americans back to work.

A second stimulus package should focus on employment, they argue. Among their specific proposals are several that business leaders–especially the leaders of multinational firms–are unlikely to like. These include passing the Employee Free Choice Act designed to make unionization easier and a strong “Buy American” requirement for federal government purchases.

On the other hand, business leaders probably can appreciate the authors’ call for tax incentives for business investments in such things as new laboratories, innovative products and manufacturing equipment. Also appealing to the business crowd should be Hindery and Riegle’s push for more public investment in infrastructure, improved trade adjustment assistance, additional aid to state and local governments and expanded job training for young people in skills such as advanced welding and computerized machine tool operation.

They also say the government ought to help create millions of jobs for American adults, in part through a new program that emulates the best of New Deal initiatives–the Works Progress Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority.

“None of the actions we call for will be easy to accomplish, nor will they come cheap. Yet we need all of them so that American workers can be fully employed in jobs that pay fair wages. We need them to rebuild, and sustain, the great commercial engines that fostered the broad American middle class of the past century and underpinned the global prosperity of the past quarter-century. We need them to bring an end to America’s sorry status as the world’s largest debtor nation. And we need them for our national and economic security.”

Yes, Hindery and Riegle’s “Jobs Solution” runs the risk of bureaucratic waste and higher corporate taxes in the long term. And companies historically have feared full employment for the bargaining clout it gives workers. But businesses rely on healthy consumers, who ultimately are just workers wearing a different hat. Given the dead-end nature of growth fueled by consumer debt, decent jobs for average Americans is the way forward for both workers and firms. A full-employment economy, in other words, may be the best solution out there for employers.

Any more Leo Hinderys in the house?

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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