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Our Views: Laboring to find work
Recession, other trends have transformed how we work in US, and solutions are hard to find
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Click here to see the Washington Post report on the top 20 growth jobs.

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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

Labor Day marks the traditional end of the summer season. But for many Americans seeking work, dark clouds have covered the sunshine for some time.

This holiday finds us contemplating the changing status of work in America and Northeast Georgia and how we can adjust, particularly the underemployed and those desperate for work.

The nation's economy is still struggling to climb out of the hole from the recession that hit in late 2008. Three years later, some sectors have shown slow but steady growth yet jobs have not followed.

Friday's news was particularly gloomy headed into the weekend. While the nation's jobless rate remains 9.1 percent, employers added no jobs in August, leaving job growth flat for the first time since last September.

It was the first time since 1945 that the government has reported a net job change of zero. Financial markets quickly plunged at the news.

The unemployment rate remains 8.7 percent in Hall County and 10.1 percent statewide, but that only tells part of the story. Many folks have given up looking for work even as their benefits begin to run out. Others have settled for whatever low-paying job they can find because their chosen field isn't hiring. Either way, their standard of living has dropped.

The reasons for this are as varied as the types of jobs out there, but there are some general trends we can note. One factor is that companies choosing to trim payroll amid the recession have learned how to get by without the extra bodies. They have changed work habits, doubled up tasks among existing employees and relied on automation more heavily to get the job done.

Even when the economy rebounds, there is no guarantee most of those jobs will return. Businesses that have learned to run leaner are likely to rely on those practices to fend off whatever downturn may await.

Another job killer is automation. So many jobs that used to be performed by a number of workers now can be trimmed to a bare few with technology. The self checkout line at the store, the ATM, the automated voicemail system, the credit card swipe at the gas pump - all of these conveniences are welcomed by consumers, but they come at the cost of eliminating paid workers.

So where can people go for work? The Washington Post recently listed the top 20 jobs expected to see growth between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Health-related jobs filled the top two spots (No. 1 was nurses, No. 2 home health care), and four of the top 10. Others included receptionists, bookkeepers, software engineers, truck drivers, teachers, landscapers and carpenters.

The news isn't so good if you aren't trained to fill any of these occupations. The U.S. no longer is the maker of most of the world's goods, manufacturers having surrendered that role to China and other developing nations to save labor costs. That has taken a bite out of a huge sector of the U.S. labor force, one that may never be replaced.

The U.S. auto industry has rebounded with a roar since its nadir in early 2009, when two of the three major carmakers took federal bailout money. Now Ford, GM and Chrysler are booming again, all reporting sales increases this summer. But while that has helped restore some labor downturns from the recession, those companies also are doing more with fewer workers.

It's hard to know where to turn when your training and skills are developed for an industry that no longer exists, or one that isn't hiring. This is why we see folks standing by highway exits holding signs that cry out for work. They don't know where else to turn.

Our political leaders believe have the answers to this, especially with an election year looming. President Barack Obama is expected to roll out a new jobs plan this week including tax incentives and increased spending on government-works projects.

Could it work? Such plans seldom have before. And the chance of any Obama plan getting through a Republican-led House and a nearly divided Senate are all but nil. With his re-election campaign months away, the president is out to appease his own party's followers who are demanding action, and likely will blame continued job losses on the other party's inaction.

Republican contenders for his job are touting their own plans to put people back to work, most of them involving tax breaks or other incentives. But as long as the economy remains in flux, few industries are likely to spend capital on new jobs. The protracted debate over the debt ceiling, the rising national debt, the failure of economies in Europe and our own skittish traders on Wall Street have combined to make for an uncertain future. Amid this fear and political sparring, few businesses are going to start hiring en masse.

Regardless, can government solutions overcome the fundamental shifts in the economy occurring in the private sector? It's hard to see how any legislation can counteract the move to overseas manufacturing, increased automation and lower-density workforces, however clever it may be.

One thing government can help do is retrain workers whose professions have been gutted by changes. Technical schools and other source of job training need to be made more affordable for those who already are struggling but need a new direction.

Next year at this time, we'll be knee-deep in a presidential campaign that is certain to focus on jobs and the economy, even if there is improvement over the next 12 months. Whether anyone's solutions to the general trends in our workforce can make a difference remains to be seen.

Let's just hope the news is a little brighter and the prospects for a stronger recovery are in place by then, or future Labor Day weekends will be even gloomier for many Americans.