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Our Views: Laboring to find work
As nations fickle job market keeps evolving, employees need the skills to change with it
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

US job picture

Largest occupations, May 2012: Retail sales, 4.3 million; cashiers, 3.3 million; food preparation and serving workers (including fast food), 2.9 million; office clerks, 2.8 million; registered nurses, 2.6 million; waiters, waitresses, 2.3 million; customer service, 2.2 million; laborers, freight, stock, and material movers, 2.1 million; janitors and cleaners, 2 million; secretaries and administrative assistants, 2 million

Largest occupations, 1910: Farmers, owners and tenants, 6.1 million; farm laborers, wageworkers, 2.8 million; farm laborers, unpaid family workers, 2.5 million; operatives and kindred workers, manufacturing, 2.3 million; laborers, nonmanufacturing industries, 2.2 million; laborers, manufacturing, 1.5 million; salesmen and sales clerks, retail trade, 1.4 million; housekeepers, private household, 1.3 million; managers, officials, and proprietors, retail trade, 1.1 million; mine operatives and laborers, 907,000

Source: US Census Bureau; Statistical Abstract, Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970

By the numbers

155.7 million: Number of people 16 and over in the nation’s labor force in May 2013

847,516: The number of paid employees (for pay period including March 12) who worked for a gasoline station in the U.S. in 2011

15.9 million: The number of wage and salary workers age 16 and over represented by a union in 2012

14.5 million: Number of female workers 16 and over in service occupations in 2011

1.9 percent: Percentage increase in employment in the U.S. between December 2011 and December 2012

$48,202 and $37,118: The 2011 real median earnings for male and female full-time, year-round workers, respectively

84.7 percent: Percentage of full-time workers 18 to 64 covered by health insurance during all or part of 2011

70 percent: Projected percentage growth from 2010 to 2020 in the number of personal care aides (607,000)

5.7 million: Number of commuters who left for work between midnight and 4:59 a.m. in 2011

4.3 percent: Percentage of workers 16 and over who worked from home in 2011

76.4 percent: Percentage of workers 16 and over who drove alone to work in 2011. Another 9.7 percent carpooled and 2.8 percent walked from home.

25.5 minutes: The average time it took workers in the U.S. to commute to work in 2011

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer, in our case a cool, wet season. With clearer skies finally here, we can dodge the storms and enjoy delayed fireworks, cookouts, football games and time at the lake before fall arrives.

Then Tuesday morning, we’ll drag ourselves out of bed when the alarm goes off, pour a little coffee into our bellies and creep back into the commute to begin a new work week.

But not everyone. Others will take their coffee while still in their pajamas and head back to the computer to search want ads, send resumes and try to find work somewhere.

The jobless rate in Hall County has trickled downward like a cascading leaf to 7.5 percent since the recession began five years ago, but that number is said to be misleading. Quite a few who have lost jobs either have given up looking or taken part-time jobs to pay what bills they can until a better option comes along.

We’ve spent the last few Labor Days seeing a gradual brightening in the bleak jobs picture as more companies began hiring. But an improving economy still isn’t producing the quantity or quality of jobs many hoped for. Experts predict continued slow job growth in the Southeast while nearly a quarter-million people keep looking. Supply is not meeting demand.

Pinpointing causes for this is dicey, but we can see some trends that may explain why it’s so hard for qualified people to find decent work.

One is that many businesses forced to make budget adjustments during the recession have learned to get by with fewer workers. Jobs downsized haven’t been restored; companies found they can get by with less by dumping more duties on remaining staff. Leaner payrolls are a new reality, even with more revenue flowing.

Advanced technology continues to make it more feasible to do the same amount of work with fewer people, creating new jobs while eliminating others and forcing workers to adjust by learning new skills.

The U.S. Census Bureau offers an interesting look at job migration over the last century. In 1910, most American jobs were farm- or factory-related. In North Georgia then, you either farmed the land or worked in a cotton mill, both involving dirty, back-breaking work for long hours with no vacation or benefits and small pay.

Today, most jobs are in retail sales, food services and janitorial, also hard work that doesn’t pay particularly well. Most of those are temporary positions taken by those more qualified for professions that aren’t hiring. Many recent college graduates are waiting tables and living at home instead of pursuing their chosen careers. And those without a higher education are faring just as badly.

This leads to frustration. Last week, many fast-food workers went on strike to protest the low minimum wage and demand higher pay. But as with most economic shifts, one change could have a negative ripple effect. Paying fast food workers twice what they now make would end up costing many of them their jobs while also jacking up prices, a lose-lose proposition for their industry.

There also is uncertainty over the national health care law about to take effect next month. Small businesses, in particular, face the choice of cutting back employee hours or dealing with an insurance mandate they can’t afford. As expensive as health insurance is for workers, it’s even more so for their bosses.

With both health insurance and minimum wage mandates, it’s worth noting any policy that benefits workers but hurts their employers will wind up harming both in the long run. The symbiotic relationship between workers, employers and customers must be preserved for the good of all.

To some extent, our ongoing labor problems seem to revolve around unrealistic career expectations. Many jobs of the recent past are gone, leaving behind a generation of high school and college graduates seeking positions that may no longer exist.

The long-term answer is to better train young workers for the industries that are likely to grow in the years to come. That includes high tech and medical fields where hiring is outpacing the number of qualified prospects.

Public schools have begun to realize this. For years, they focused on preparing students for college, a noble goal, yet a four-year liberal arts degree isn’t for everyone and doesn’t always lead to a lasting career. More students now are being guided toward technical vocations that offer better hiring and growth potential.

A roundtable on workplace development held last week at Lanier Tech stressed the need to connect bright young people into such jobs, helping them develop the skills needed for 21st century manufacturing and other trades.

Assembly lines are no longer havens for untrained laborers; those who land the best jobs at new-age plants must provide the technical know-how employers seek. And society will always need electricians, plumbers and mechanics, jobs that require specific skills that pay well for a lifetime.

Yet it’s a given that many of those jobs also will evolve over time and we’ll face another detour in how and where we work. Future generations must remain smart, flexible and pragmatic to make those changes effectively.

Americans work hard and have never been an idle people, despite the view of some. The challenge our political, education and business leaders face is to channel that work ethic into jobs that will fuel economic growth and benefit everyone.

Otherwise, future Labor Days will continue to offer dreary reminders of a job market that is leaving too many people behind.

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