Something is terribly wrong. I can’t put my finger on its exact nature, but I know that America’s capacity for creating jobs and generating wealth is not functioning in most sectors. Several years ago we fell into a collective malaise, a societal depression from which we have yet to recover. The excitement of the new and the different is a thing of the past. Say what you will about the turbulent days of last decade ó the days of exponential corporate growth, internet hoopla, overvalued stock, inflated salaries, and endless opportunities real or imagined ó I never had so much fun in my life. Each day was an adventure, with recruiters and HR professionals running a hundred miles an hour just to keep up. Economists say that a turnaround is six months out. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. That prediction is utter nonsense, because a society that does not produce new jobs will always have a recessionary feeling for those who are no longer working. I have heard the “six months out” scenario ever since the bubble burst, sending developers to make coffee at Starbucks, marketing people to Home Depot, and recruiters/HR professionals to substitute teaching. Let’s depart from this rant and look at some tidbits of reality. Companies continue to lay off employees. According to economist Robert Hall, “Companies are continuing to shed jobs at a furious pace ó 525,000 non-farm payroll positions in the past three months alone. Since March 2001, when the recession began, the U.S. economy has lost 2.1 million jobs” (Wall Street Journal, 5/29/03). Consultants are starving. Search firms have been eviscerated. Professional service organization billings have plummeted, and few companies are investing in new technology. We are only inches from losing another major airline, with the most experienced veteran pilots leaving because their earning power has been so greatly reduced. Even biotech ó an industry that traditionally copes well with recessions due to the deep-rooted commitment of its investors to long-term thinking ó has been affected. Some people I know to be the best and the brightest throughout many industries have been unemployed for more than a year, some for more than two. Many of those who once had careers and positions with some degree of meaning are unemployed, underemployed, or lost souls trying to figure out what to do next as nothing they attempt seems to generate any traction. The range of emotions I pick up on extends from depression and isolation to anger and hopelessness. It seems that many people’s biggest nightmare appears to be coming true: there are bills to pay and no income with which to pay them. Those left behind and still working are terrified of becoming the next causalities. They are afraid to stay and they are afraid to go because mortgages have to be paid and the kids need shoes. A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal said, “A life without work does not work.” The calls I get for advice and help are endless and they only add credence to that quotation. The reasons for our economy’s collective misery are not clear (it is my opinion that we have, for reasons unknown, psychologically unplugged and are now just waiting for things to get better). However, I can tell you, despite popular opinion, what occurrences are not causing this unrelenting recession:
- 9/11 is not the problem. It is seared into our memories, but as a people, Americans tend to move on. There is no other intelligent option at hand.
- The looting of major corporations is not the problem. A small percentage of CEOs will always be criminals. This should surprise only the uninitiated, the unaware or the na?ve.
- The war in Iraq is not the problem. It is over and probably could not have gone much better. The experts expounded their theories how things would get better after the war because it was the only major uncertainty on the horizon.
- Terrorism on the home front is not the problem. Danger is a part of being alive. Personally, I am far too dumb to let the possibility of dirty bombs, anthrax, suicide bombers, or any other threat keep me from doing my part to build organizations, peruse capitalism, and invent the future. (Should the World Trade Center be rebuilt, I would be honored to be the first person to occupy its uppermost floors.)
- Hardly worth a mention, but if you think that SARS or the weather is playing a role, change your mind quickly. They are not even on the radar screen.
It is my belief that the only way out of this mess is for the movers and shakers of the private sector to blast their way out by doing something radical. Our thinking has to be extreme, our action intense, and our resolve unrelenting. We are in a deep hole, but an inspired and revolutionary plan followed by steadfast application and brilliant execution can provide the momentum to turn the tide. With this in mind let me suggest something that is counterintuitive to most business models, contrary to accepted capitalist dogma, and clearly a divergence from popular thinking. Grab a chair, because here it comes: Instead of figuring out how to do more work with fewer people as we have been doing for years, I suggest that we figure a way to do more work with more people. What I have in mind is a partnership between government and the private sector. And even though those of us in recruiting and HR may not be in a direct position to put all of these ideas into practice, I still think they give us some food for thought. Here is what I propose:
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- Human resources should partner with senior management to look for ways to create meaningful positions that support corporate objectives. These new positions would allow displaced workers the opportunity to become productive corporate citizens again, pay taxes, and build their futures while supporting departments that either generate revenue or support that effort. I call this concept “spiraling upward,” because it is diametrically opposed to what has already happened to so many businesses that have spiraled downward. (Besides, since I will be thought to be a creeping socialist by many, I have earned the right to call it what I like.)
- Instead of tax cuts that will cost our government billions, I propose we use some of that money to fund a proposal like this. As much as I love George W. and believe his tax cut to be well intentioned, tax cuts will not create new jobs just because people now have a few more dollars to spend on goods or services. What is an unemployed person to do with the money from a tax cut? Buy a new PDA, or put it towards paying the light bill? Unemployed people need jobs to generate regular income, not tax cuts to spend money provided by the government in lieu of real jobs. Most people would rather have a job to go to and higher taxes than no job and lower taxes. Furthermore, this partnership initiative could be interpreted as an investment to fix what is broken as opposed to a heavy cost to our government that will, in the end, accomplish nothing.
This simple proposal would result in the following benefits. It would:
- Provide some of the jobs that this economy desperately needs to get our workforce off unemployment, off living on savings or on cash pulled out of their homes value, and back to earning a living by going to work each day. (Not to mention the fact that it would alleviate a great deal of human misery and angst.)
- Support the decimated R&D budgets that are so closely tied to our collective futures. The front page of the Wall Street Journal on May 23, in an article about Bell Labs, read: “For nearly eight decades, Bell Labs stood at the summit of American technological prowess, garnering six Nobel Prizes and fostering a climate of unhampered scientific inquiry… The labs’ deep pockets funded research that either invented or laid the groundwork for the transistor, communications satellite, fax machine, VCR and numerous other landmark devices… Bell Labs’ research budget has [now] sunk to about $115 million from its mid-1990s level of $350 million.” For many researchers, these moves represent the erosion of a scientific icon. Each time we cut R&D, we sell a bit of our future to pay for our present. This short-term thinking must end or our future might be just as unpleasant as our present. Or worse.
- Provide a new partnership between the private and public sector that preserves the core aspects of capitalism but builds in a safety net in the event of a long-term recession and sets precedence for similar actions on an as-needed basis.
- Do something that is long overdue. It would provide those who are victims of this economy the hope so many have lost and generate the impetus necessary to create not just jobs but excitement and optimism about their individual futures and the future of this country’s economy. (We are the only superpower on earth. We need an economy that can support this interesting position.)
The question is not whether this solution will work perfectly, but how it could be implemented in an effective and measurable way that would allow for mid-course corrections. I honestly believe that if a proposal like this were implanted, it would symbolize the very best of partnerships between the private and public sectors and act as a model for new ways for these sectors to work together to create economic strength and financial viability. You may oppose my proposition, but if you were out of work for a year or two, would you be more inclined to give it a try? What about if you are laid off next month? Surely you realize that some people reading this will not be working in thirty days. Be careful of what new concepts you reject. The job you save may be your own!