Monday, February 21, 2011

As It Stands: The real American Dream -- jobs for everyone

By Dave Stancliff/For the Times-Standard

Posted: 02/20/2011 01:30:18 AM PST

When I graduated from high school in 1968, I knew I had several options. One, I could easily find an unskilled production job that offered a living wage, go to college, or go into the military and risk a tour of duty in Vietnam.

The options for students today are narrower. When they graduate, the prospects of finding unskilled production work at a living wage is bleak at best. As for going to college, it usually means getting student loans and facing years of paying them back. To make matters worse, when students do graduate from college these days, there's no guarantee jobs will be offered to them.

They have to compete in the toughest job market in decades. Almost 2 million college graduates are unemployed. A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers predicts companies will hire 22 percent fewer graduating seniors than last year. Joining the military is still an option, but it may mean multiple tours in Afghanistan. The same goes for the National Guard, who at least weren't sent to Vietnam back in the day.

Let's set aside the challenge of jobs for college graduates and those who choose the military, and take a closer look at what high school graduates face in today's job market.

The manufacturing sector has made productivity gains, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That should be good news, right? Not so fast. Good news for whom? More manufacturing jobs for humans disappear every year. When we hear about levels of output per hour worked rising by 2.6 percent in the last three months of 2010, it sounds positive.

Upon closer examination, these gains in productivity are thanks to robots. Once upon a time, a human laborer turned out so many widgets an hour, and everyone made a profit. A worker could count on working the same job until retirement because American manufacturing led the entire world.

That's changed. There are fewer human workers and more robots. Humans are trained to watch over the robots and to repair them, but that is skilled work and requires training.

The experts talk about productivity rising in America and how specialization is the key to manufacturing success, but that has translated into a jobless future for unskilled production workers. In an interview last month, Tom Runiewicz, an economist at IHS Global Insight who keeps track of the manufacturing sector, warned that the unskilled production worker will soon be obsolete.

The sad truth is most economists expect the jobless rate to remain stubbornly high for a long time to come -- especially among lower-skilled workers. The prospects aren't pretty. Although the unemployment rate has improved in the past couple of months, it remains at 9 percent, well above historic norms, with 14 million Americans looking for work.

Those figures don't tell the whole story. In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says more than 8 million people who are working part-time would rather work full-time.

Another 1 million people are classified as “discouraged workers,” which means they would like to work but don't think there's a job out there for them.

And there you have it folks. Capitalism marches on. So what will happen to those people? They are more than just unfortunate statistics. Those men and women whose lives were devalued when their skills were automated? Family dreams shattered? Where do they fit into this 21st Century reality? It's sad to think I once took it for granted that there would always be jobs for someone willing to work. To see the harsh reality of no work facing millions of hard-working Americans concerns me.

The mainstream media tells us things are looking up on Wall Street and Americans are becoming more productive. Yet I look around at the swelling ranks of the unemployed, the long lines at community Food Banks, and I wonder how long this can go on?

As It Stands, I think when people knew there was a job for them if they were willing to work hard was the real American Dream.

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