Employees face job-market paradox

A central theme of Gov. Jesse Ventura’s “Big Plan” is “self-sufficient people.” In a word, this means jobs — training for them, getting them, keeping them — a worthy, albeit unoriginal, goal that Democrats and Republicans alike have consistently supported in the past. And like his counterparts, Ventura might be underestimating how difficult it is to get folks to work in our ever-changing world.
Today’s job market is a tricky beast. With baby boomers retiring in the next few years, many experts predict a labor shortage of epic proportions. At the same time, Minnesota has an unbelievably low 2 1/2 percent unemployment rate. (Four percent is often considered full employment.) But we have also seen more than 500,000 layoffs nationwide last year because of corporate mergers, such as the one between Exxon and Mobil, and cost-cutting measures at companies like Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic and Boeing. Further complicating matters are the advances in information technology, which have simultaneously created whole new industries and displaced workers with automated production and delivery of goods and services.
This means two things: First, it’s a great time to ask your boss for a raise if you have a job with a lot of responsibility or specialized knowledge. Second, breaking into the job market as a college graduate will be as difficult as ever.
The Citizens League, a Minnesota-based nonpartisan think tank, suggested earlier this year a three-part plan to address Minnesota’s current labor crisis. First, attract and retain top-notch employees and increase their productivity. This means equipping elite employees with even more skills. Second, reinvest in the work force through better training programs. Finally, eliminate employment barriers.
Although more detailed than what Ventura has divulged so far, the Citizens League suggestions are weak because they do little for the average worker today. What is most disappointing is our lack of preparation. We have known for many years that the massive number of baby boomers would someday leave the work force. The impending labor shortage is a crisis that did not need to happen.
For now, the labor shortage has prompted many employers to offer better wages, benefits, stock options, tuition reimbursements and flexible hours to attract, retain and retrain their skilled employees — stopgap measures at best. In some cases, gifted employees have created Kevin Garnett-like bidding wars for their services and have made a pretty penny by playing corporate musical chairs.
But this is only possible because most new college graduates lack the specialized experience to fill the high-end vacancies that employers so desperately seek to fill. Unless you had the foresight to study computers, plan on living with your parents after graduation while you gain real-world experience.
By focusing on the recruitment of high-impact “elite” employees, the Citizens League hopes to foster the creative genius that can create whole new industries, which would create an exponential number of future jobs. This is a sound long-term strategy. Along with retaining top-notch employees, this is the easy part of their plan.
The hard part will be motivating people to attain the needed skills to enter the hyper-specialized, high-tech work force. The first step is getting people in the technological loop. In fact, some employment gurus theorize that returning to school for retraining could actually lower your value as a worker because you miss out on the cutting-edge technologies only found in the workplace. In other words, the best way to attain the skill necessary to be a sought-after employee is to have a good job.
The trick is getting your foot in the right door. One of the weakest goals the Citizens League stated is getting perpetually unemployed or underemployed individuals to see how a seemingly dead-end job can become the first step on a career ladder. This task might be bigger than they anticipate.
Although low-skilled workers cannot start at the top, they must be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sure, any job will help them develop their work ethic, but every year in a crappy job is another year of missed opportunities. In addition, in truly poor neighborhoods, teenagers often compete with adults for entry-level fast-food jobs, which means many youths cannot develop a job history on which they can build.
Showing prospective workers that employers really want to “invest in the work force” will be equally difficult. Part of the problem with attracting and retaining employees today is the fact that companies have been treating the average worker poorly for the past 10 years. The unwillingness to pay for training new workers — instead expecting tailor-made “products” straight from college — has finally come back to haunt some companies. Until more training occurs in-house, employers cannot expect loyal workers.
Transportation is another barrier to getting the right employment skills and experiences. Without a car, looking for a “career track” job is very difficult. Taking a bus from St. Paul to Edina for a job interview takes more than an hour each way and effectively means missing a whole day of work — something many people simply cannot afford to do. This also prevents many people from seeking rÇsumÇ-building part-time jobs and volunteer activities. This is one of many little obstacles that can make the difference between success and failure.
Despite its shortcomings, the Citizens League’s plan is a good starting point. The biggest flaw is that it does not recognize how easy it is to get sideswiped on the road to success. This is probably because the planners, like many successful people, worked hard and made unfettered, linear progress to the top of their profession. They have no reason to believe their outhouse-to-penthouse story cannot be repeated. They should. The job market has changed dramatically since they got their first break and will continue to change.
Gov. Ventura, proud as he is about his achievements despite completing less than a year of college, should take note if he wants this integral component of his Big Plan to work. Tough talk about personal responsibility won’t magically create jobs or train workers.

Ed Day’s column appears on alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]