Thursday, September 1, 2011

Labor Day ignores 25 million Americans

Labor Day is this weekend. For most it marks the end of summer, though that officially doesn’t happen until September 23. Fashion experts have proclaimed white is deriguer until Memorial Day. The holiday became a national observance in 1894 when President Cleveland signed Congress’s unanimous legislation at the end of the violent Pullman Strike. Parades, celebrations and political rallies are traditions in many U.S. communities. Missing from all of the festivities are the 25 million Americans who are out of work.

Unemployment statistics are notoriously inaccurate. The methodology changes regularly – with the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishing a 19-page guide  detailing the history and changes in calculation processes. The Federal Government currently tracks unemployment based on those who are eligible for benefits rather than on whether somebody is working or not. The maximum number of weeks an individual may receive benefits depends by state with the longest being 99 weeks. At the 100th week even if you don’t have a job the Bureau of Labor Statistics no longer considers you unemployed…they don’t consider you at all. Contributing to the murky nature of the rate are people who are underemployed (working part-time but want to work full-time).

The “real” unemployment rate is reported to be 25.1 million, or 16.2% based on a determination of people who are eligible to work but aren’t.

Big, generic figures are hard to personally identify with. The national debt, for example, of nearly $15 trillion is difficult to understand due to its enormity. Tell 300 million Americans that each must contribute $50,000 to pay it off, and it’s easier to grasp.

My personal tangible statistics: 32 months (2 years, 8 months) without a paycheck, nearly 1,000 job applications, 6 phone interviews, 1 in person interview and 0 job offers. Others have applied to more positions with similar results. I dropped off of the unemployment rolls ages ago, so the Government doesn’t consider me unemployed.

Theories abound as to the reasons. I’m overqualified. I’m under qualified. I don’t have enough of an academic pedigree. I have too much experience for the position. I don't have enough of the right kind of experience.  The positions applied for don’t really exist as they’re just listed for legal reasons to cover the person who was moved internally into the job. I’ve been out of work too long so there’s something wrong with me. The truth lies somewhere in a mash-up of those and other reasons. 

With so many people seeking few positions, employers are in the enviable position of choice. There’s a powerful scene in the powerful film “The Company Men” where Ben Affleck’s character is interviewing for a position that pays half his prior salary and would require him to move his family away from their life-long community. “I’m a highly qualified candidate,” the character says to the hiring agent who eats her lunch during the interview. Her reply: “I have 70 highly qualified candidates.”

If an employer feels that for a particular position they need a person with specific experiences, designated degrees and skills – they can actually find somebody to fill all of the boxes. Technology supports the search process by eliminating any application that doesn’t immediately fill in each box. Gone from the equation is risk, opportunity and the human component. In today’s litigious environment, that makes sense. The result over time will be a loss of innovation, vision and entrepreneurship.

I’ve been the employer. Few things are more fulfilling than hiring new staff which is a tangible manifestation of a growing and successful enterprise. Of course companies want to operate efficiently and profitably. Labor costs are high. Any well run business delights in hiring because their financial model proves that hiring and growing equates to more income and more profit.

Why aren’t companies hiring? Blame can be spread widely. Regulations cost each consumer $15,000 per year. Corporate greed and a fanatic commitment to shareholders play a part. Republicans and Democrats are in the midst of epic warfare in a now continual election cycle. The media report on political strategy as if it was policy. The horse race mentality makes for engaging coverage but is bad governance. Confidence in institutions is low. Everyday Americans are not engaged in the political process: they are overwhelmed with making ends meet, putting food on the table and raising the next generation. A minority of eligible voters actually determine elections.

Former Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards was right about one thing: there are Two Americas. Rhetorically the political parties favor vastly different solutions. Republicans claim to want a "return" to the Laissez Faire policies where the marketplace sorts everything out and Democrats claim to want a strong role for the state to help those who are in most need. Their actual shared policies, however, provide for a hybrid that has resulted in stagnation and the worst economy in nearly a century.

President Clinton resonated with Americans in 1992 with his Hollywood produced campaign film “The Man from Hope.” He effectively wrapped his birthplace around a campaign built on promise and hope. And then he delivered economic results. President Obama branded himself and his followers with the mantra “Yes We Can.” We’re still waiting. Regardless of political belief, 25 million of us want to believe. We want to work. We want to contribute. We want Labor Day to once again be relevant in our lives.

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