In this week's feature, "The big hurt," I write about Georgia's rising unemployment rate and how it's impacting metro Atlantans. To better understand the current economic landscape, I visited the state Department of Labor's recent job fair at the Georgia World Congress Center. The event, which organizers estimate attracted more than 19,000 job seekers, was considered the largest in the state's history. To view Joeff Davis' photographs of the event, go here.
While reporting on the convention center floor, I spotted Commissioner Michael Thurmond monitoring the event from a hospitality suite. Thurmond, who's brutally honest but optimistic about the situation, agreed to chat. After the jump, a transcript of my interview with the commissioner. In it, he talks about how the state can prepare for a recovered economy, the impact of globalization, and the job-loss story that hit him the hardest.
(File photo by Joeff Davis)
What does this economic landscape look like to you? You've compared it to a "Darwinian job market." How else do you view it?
Its a major restructuring of the American economy. And were witnessing the death of the 20th century economy and the birth of the 21st century economy. What I mean by that is that these are not job losses in terms of them being temporary. These are permanent losses, many of them. Thats why, consequently, many of the skill sets many of the American workers utilized to find jobs and maintain employment, the skill sets have become obsolete. its critical we re-educate, re-train and upscale this workforce, and prepare it for the opportunity that will be created in the future.
Im convinced that the economy will come back. But someone said, you gotta know which way the frog is going to jump. In other words, weve got to prepare this workforce. When we became a globalized economy, we still were operating with an Industrial-Age workforce. And thats had a major impact on Americans finding jobs and support themselves.
This maniacal pursuit of cheap labor, which in many ways is the result of globalization. Were beginning to recognize the fallacy of that. But at the end of the day, we have to prepare these workers. And actually, now that you have tens of thousands of Georgians, and millions of Americans who are idle,this is the perfect time to do that. That makes sense.
One thing that's struck me about metro Atlanta in particular, and this is partly my opinion and also what I've been seeing, so please tell me if I'm wrong, is that its chief industry has been growth. When I went to high school, it seemed that everyone's dad was a builder and everyone's mom was in real estate. Where have you seen some of those people go? And am I wrong in that perception?
Growth fueled the housing industry, and once that collapsed we didnt realize how dependent our growth was on the housing and real estate industry. And once that collapsed, it had a huge negative impact on our overall economy.
And how do you pick up from that, when it seems an entire industry has been paralyzed?
Its the workforce. Kevin Costner. Field of Dreams. "If you build it, they will come." Build a workforce. One of the things weve not done, what we dont recognize, is that in any business, the most important asset you have is your work force. It doesnt appear on your ledger sheet or profit-or-loss statement. So that whole notion that we followed in the south of "strong binds, weak minds and cheap labor" is no longer a viable option for this state or country. We must in a very fundamental way, invest in this workforce.
We see now the fallacy of pursuing cheap labor in China or Taiwan. Thats not sustainable over a long period of time. Because when Americans lose jobs and can't support themselves, cant pay house notes or purchase the goods, that ultimately cripples the economy. Pursuing the cheap labor, now we recognize, is not the most rational strategy from an economic development perspective.
Because you need consumers. Not only are they your laborers, but theyre also your consumers. So when these laborers cant earn salaries, that reduces their ability to consume. So its in my best interest and your best interest to make sure the laborer is well paid, if for no other reason, so he or she can consume more.
It's almost like the snake eating its tail.
Exactly. So we followed the strategy, Lets just build it cheaper and even though they have lower wages, theyll still be able to purchase it. If I build a widget cheaper in China, I can sell it cheaper in America. And although this person went from making $20 an hour to $7 an hour, he or she can still consume it. But thats a false positive. And it proved not to be sustainable.
In a recent New Yorker piece, James Surowiecki wrote that unemployment was up, but so were workers' wages and productivity. He said that could be a product of just-in-time technology and that it might have an impact on unemployment rates. Have you thought about how metro Atlanta can cope with that? Businesses, understandably, look for more ways to be efficient.
But businesses also need consumers. You can be so efficient that you eliminate the worker who is also a consumer. So its in my best interest to support the worker if for no other than a selfish reason than so he or she can be a consumer. You cant separate the two theyre the same person. And we seemingly lost track of that. So were recalibrating. And rethinking. Its an opportunity. Its a challenge, but its also an opportunity.
What this means [gesturing toward the job fair] is that people havent given up hope. People are still encouraged, people are still believing and thats important. Obviously, some will find jobs. Others will find opportunities for training and education. But the main thing were trying to do is to maintain and keep this workforce encouraged and inspired and not lose hope. And believe that tomorrow will be better than today.
In all the stories you hear about businesses closing up shop and people losing their jobs, what's the story that's stood out to you the most? What stands out?
(stops and thinks) The trucking company that shut down on Labor Day without notice. This company, the truckers showed up one day, I can't even remember the trucking company name, there were about 800 workers, and the company had shut down without notice. They sent out an e-mail. I thought that was... beyond the pale. Its more the individuals than any one job, who are sitting there stunned. A guy, 55, 60 years old. May not have graduated from high school. 18, 19, 20 years on the job. And its just over. He never had a resume. Never needed one. You know, "I got the job because my dad got the job. And he brought me in and he was the only reference I needed." And having to start over. And you being the one responsible for helping them try to understand not just how to do it, but why to do it.
Do you know how many jobs the companies represented here are offering?
Not 20,000. So the great majority of folk will walk out of here without a job. But everyone will walk out of here with a lot more information, and a great number of people will walk out of here, most importantly, with a little hope and encouragement.
Is there a silver lining to what we're going through?
America is going to have to become a country that "makes things." You have to be a country that makes things. When you stop making things, that has long-term implications for the vitality and viability of our economy. You gotta make things. It's just simple. It's not just an economy about college-educated folks. Most folks don't go to college. Most of them go to high school, graduate high school, maybe go to a technical college. They're the backbone of our economy. Not you and I. And we gotta appreciate that, and respect the labor and respect the laborers who engage in that labor.
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