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Redefining Work

POSTED: June 16, 2011, 12:00 am

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This week President Obama traveled to Durham, North Carolina to a manufacturer of light emitting diode (LED) lighting, Cree Lighting. It was a symbolically important stop for the President for several reasons. First, it was one of his campaign stops during the 2008 campaign, and second, the state was his last stop the night before the election and will host next summer’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. With the economy looming as the issue of the 2012 campaign, the President is being confronted with the unenviable task of campaigning in the midst of a historic economic meltdown. As the economy has sputtered along, the White House has sought to portray any positive trend as a sign of recovery but was dealt a setback when May’s employment figures were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics earlier this month. Complicating matters for President Obama is the crisis in Black unemployment as Blacks have borne the brunt of the downturn and face an unemployment rate twice that of whites.

Against the backdrop of the President’s visit to Cree Lighting, the Department of Labor released a report acknowledging the extent of Black unemployment and the degree to which Blacks have been undermined by the recession. It marked the first time during the Obama presidency when the racial impact of the downturn has been formally acknowledged and the administration has publicly admitted that it must do more to connect Black Americans to the labor market. The admission comes after the President has spent three years sidestepping the issue of racial disparities and following weeks of an intense public debate between some Black leaders over the effectiveness of the President’s economic policies. With the economy casting a shadow on the 2012 election, the White House is under pressure to ramp up its job creation strategies.

In Durham, President Obama focused on job creation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, highlighting the work at Cree Lighting as an example of forward-thinking industry. The President noted that despite STEM providing the jobs of the future in our nation, just 14 percent of the nation’s undergraduate students are enrolled in those core subjects. He said, “Of those students, one-third will switch out of those fields, and only about 2 in 5 will graduate with a STEM degree or certification within six years.” President Obama remarked that the White House was teaming with the private sector to promote STEM education, offer students incentives to graduate with the appropriate degrees, and help universities raise monies for those core subjects. While at the Cree plant, the President also referenced his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, comprised of private sector executives and announced a new initiative to train 10,000 new American engineers every year.

A report by the McKinsey Global Institute echoes some of the President’s sentiments but paints a very sobering picture of the challenges facing the administration. The McKinsey report notes that we are experiencing an essentially jobless recovery, and for the first time during a prolonged recession, American companies used workforce reductions as the priority to avert disaster. Companies affected in previous recessions reduced production rather than terminate workers but are now opting to increase productivity with less staff. It has resulted in little job growth and persistently high unemployment, particularly in the case of Blacks, Latinos and low-skilled workers. The McKinsey report suggests that for the nation to return to a state of “full employment,” at 5 percent unemployment or less, some 22 million new jobs have to be created by the end of this decade. Even under that optimistic scenario, the report 5 percent unemployment rate would not be reached until 2018.

As the President focused on opportunities to grow the workforce with an eye on STEM related jobs, the McKinsey Global Institute’s report painted a picture of a new formulation of work itself; a rethinking of what future jobs will look like, where they will be created and how work will get done. In addition to STEM, the report forecasts job growth in business services and health care. The report calls attention to the need to revamp American education to prepare students for work in areas where jobs will exist, a point magnified by data that suggests limited opportunities for workers without a college degree but a much smoother path to a career for higher-skilled and credentialed workers. One of the most insightful parts of the McKinsey report is the contemplation of a different conception of work; with more telecommuting, work requiring electronic communication and engaged by multiple employers as the “full-time” job is predicted to take on a different meaning this century. Workers may hold more than one job, and part-time work is forecast as a growing trend. The idea of a single, full-time job with one employer over a number of years is likely to become an artifact, according to the McKinsey report, and the baby boomer retiree community may be called back into limited service by employers who want their expertise and efficiency at handling tasks.

As the administration works to ramp up the economic recovery it must also incorporate its education reform agenda as an integral part of any job creation strategy. Perhaps not since the space race with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union has the link between education and the nation’s economic fortunes been so clear. Unless the nation can revamp public education, the United States stands to be mired in a long-term slump and fall further behind the world’s developed nations. Given the extent of Black unemployment, the focus on revamping schools in urban districts and suburban areas with large African-American populations takes on a heightened sense of urgency. If the next generation of Black adult workers does not receive an education that provides the necessary skills, relevant to the areas forecast for growth, the Black community could conceivably face an even deeper descent.

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