Reinvesting In Our Human Capital

tt-labor-day-2017.jpgAs we approach Labor Day, we are reminded that the current state of the American worker and the job market is in a turbulent period. Newspaper headlines and political leaders like to tout reduced unemployment figures, but hidden within those flashy headlines is the fact that too many people are still under employed, having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet or simply only able to find part-time employment if at all. Also, with the participation in the job force, as measured by the U.S. Department of Labor, at the lowest numbers in decades we are given a false sense that our nation’s employment situation isn’t that bad. Unfortunately, it is.

The problem caused by the dearth of good jobs in numerous job sectors is exacerbated by the skills gap necessary to fill those in-demand occupations. This is further compounded by the fact that many of those positions didn’t even exist a decade or so ago. Meeting this need is essential to moving our economy and worker success forward. Additionally, this not only has economic consequences, but has a far reaching impact into our political world as well. The fact that the demand for good jobs far exceeds the supply is a real threat to political stability. This instability often leads to frustration, lethargy and disenchantment with the political process and a lack of focus and attention by political leaders to addressing the very real issue, of inequality in economic opportunity. 

Currently, the Democratic Party faces this dilemma on a national level as they try to demonstrate credibility on an economic message, and reclaim the votes of people in areas of the country where the party once was dominant. However, both political parties’ focus in this area should be uncomplicated. If either can develop an economic agenda that is forward-thinking, which allows innovation to advance and ignites investment in our nation’s greatest natural resource -- our human capital – they will be rewarded by the voters. Further, by advancing programs and initiatives that prepare our workforce to meet the needs of the jobs of tomorrow that agenda can lead our economy towards a sustained path of inclusive economic prosperity.

This is where both of the major political parties, have lost their way. Many in our country feel that both the political and economic establishments have left them and their economic fortunes behind. A good job can define one’s relationship with their neighborhood and their country. Numerous psychological studies have shown that most individuals, who are un- or underemployed, have a lesser sense of themselves and their place in our broader society. As President Ronald Reagan once famously said, "The best social program is a job." That statement still rings true today.

People all across our country and from every political perspective feel that the economy is tilted against them. This makes the ability to find a good paying job more constrained than at almost any period in our country’s history. When I sit down in diners, community forums or in church halls after services to talk with the men and women whom I am privileged to represent, the frustration and anger is palpable. Those discussions lament that no one is looking out for the American worker anymore. That as automation and technological advances have exploded productivity, we have not taken the time to bring the workforce, and their individual economic fortunes, along with it. That was never the promise of the American Dream.

As the son of a union Teamster, I was always preached to by my father that the beauty of our country lies in the notion that hard work and ingenuity would be rewarded with an honest wage and an opportunity for financial and personal growth. Sadly, this no longer seems to be the case. Nowadays, the scarcity of opportunity (both economic and employment) is one of the biggest culprits of income inequality in our country. This leads to the men and women of our nation feeling that politicians have sacrificed their financial futures for their own political gain. And, rather than nip around the edges at what needs to be done to address it, we are long past the time to correct this imbalance.

So, what do we do? Our focus has to be on creating an environment where good jobs can flourish again. This means ensuring a corporate tax and regulatory structure that supports job growth and rewards companies for keeping jobs in our country rather than sending them abroad. We also need to invest in workforce development initiatives, like apprenticeship programs, that train our citizens for the jobs available and the ones we want to grow. It also means removing obstacles that prevent every segment of our society from fully participating in the growth of our economy. We have to continue to stress the important point that, by increasing employee wages, we should not be forced into a binary choice of employers decreasing their profit margin as a result.

Furthermore, by taking a hard look nationally at trade deals, which have been shown to be detrimental to the American worker, we are not being solely protectionist but rather pragmatic. We know that there is unequivocally a place for American products in the global marketplace. However, if securing that place comes at the expense of the American worker, then we will never reach the full promise of the American Dream. 

Our nation’s workforce has built this country through periods of peace and prosperity. Investing in its future is not only patriotic, but also makes economic sense. While the current economic environment may seem dark to many now, we shouldn’t lose hope. Our detractors across the globe may feel emboldened by the current state of affairs in our nation but that will not remain. We must recommit ourselves to the competitive spirit and drive that built our nation, and sustained us through generation after generation. And, as we mark this upcoming Labor Day, let us honor the worker with more than mere words, but with an agenda that puts the American Dream of a good job back within their reach. That’s my take. What’s yours?

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  • Michael Stern
    commented 2017-09-01 11:41:28 -0400
    Thanks Frank Friedman. So here’s an opportunity to influence local, state, and federal policy with programs aimed at upgrades—in schools, training programs, and most important right now, retraining. We use our public schools for only a portion of the day, and of the year. So I suggest that where to hold training classes, adult education etc. is not a problem. Instructors can be found in all areas of concern, but ya gotta pay them. A good place for recent grads to get a start because they know more about computers and technology the younger they are.
    How about a pilot program with corporate foundation support? Contact me if you want someone to put it together. This is grassroots politics at its best.
  • Frank Friedman
    commented 2017-08-31 22:37:08 -0400
    Michael Stern is correct … the Democrats have indeed moved away from its roots, in lots of ways, in healthcare, providing necessary social services, and of course in the area of education and training . But there is still something missing here, and that has to do with the details of what needs to be done. Once again, Michael is correct; neither party seems very interested in educating and training and retraining America. The Democrats are way behind the curve here. Republicans are do not even have this on their radar of things that must be done. They would prefer to build walls, spend more unneeded dollars on the military, and make and even bigger mess of our healthcare and infrastructure. As a result, the country is even further behind at least a dozen other countries in terms of its commitment to educating and training its population, especially in science, engineering, math, and computing. Bernie’s free college for all is not the solution. However, affordable college for those who want it and can do it is essential. This will, as Michael said, be the knowledge century, but this cannot be separated out from what will also be a century driven by huge technological innovation and change. Technology will become even more ubiquitous than it is now. We have to educate some to build this technology and push it forward. And everyone will need to be educated and/or trained in how to use this technology, and how to do so for the good of the world, rather than do harm. Regardless of your interests and areas of expertise, with but few exceptions, technology will be ever-present in whatever we do. This, incidentally, applies to Congress, which thanks to 25 years of Republican efforts, is now woefully understaffed and uneducated to be able to deal with world change, most of it fueled by technology. Instead of coming to grips with the education and training needs of our citizens, far too many of our politicians spend time bashing the education/training enterprise and ensuring there is too little money to properly nurture this enterprise. Trump and his friends have no clue and no interest — so the next 3-plus years will push us further behind. One of the many reasons Congress cannot get anything done is that it does not even understand what needs to be done.
  • Michael Stern
    commented 2017-08-31 17:43:16 -0400
    You make a sound argument, but I think you don’t go far enough. The American economy is driven by its ability to create. Innovation has been the hallmark of what has driven the country, but two changes have taken place in the past few decades. The first is a change in the values we used to share, the idea that a rising tide lifts all ships. Because the Democratic Party has moved away from its roots and essentially joined the Republicans in the “I got mine” world, the rhetoric of “community” holds no power. The Dems have lost credibility by losing sight of those groups they used to actually help. The second change is technology. The 21st century will be the “Knowledge Century” and we are behind because we have failed to anticipate, plan, educate, train and retrain our workforce for both the present and the future. Underfunding schools and the first line of defense, our teachers, equipping students with an education designed for the Industrial Revolution, and failing to present a clear and cogent policy direction, leaves both the country and the Democratic Party behind the curve. America used to be first in everything. No longer. And the commitment to get back there is lacking. I believe its time to present a vision at the local, state and Federal levels of government that deal with the interwoven issues of jobs, housing, poverty, education, with an emphasis on results. How about just a website for the State of NJ that provides information to job seekers that actually works? That would be a start.