There was a time in American presidential politics when creating jobs was important. In today's political environment, not so much.
I can remember back in 1972, when the unemployment rate was a whopping 5.6 percent, that both the Republicans and Democrats had party platforms calling for "full employment" and "a job for all." Both parties wanted to reach the magical "natural unemployment rate" of 2 percent.
Today, what we hear from candidates is that they have a "plan" to create jobs. Apparently, the plan will only be unveiled if they're elected. It reminds me of then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon campaigning in 1968 that he had a "plan" to end the Vietnam War. As I hefted myself onto a helicopter preparing to go on yet another air assault, I remember thinking that if Nixon has a plan to end this madness, why doesn't he just tell everyone what it is so that I can go home?
I imagine the 5.1 million Americans who have been unemployed for six months or longer, the 8.1 million Americans who are working part-time for economic reasons, and the more than one million Americans who are so discouraged that they've simply given up looking for work might be having similar thoughts.
You can almost hear them thinking, "If you have a plan to end this madness, just tell us so that we can go back to work."
Want to know what I think? I don't think any of them has a real plan. What they're calling a "plan" is nothing more than an incremental approach that deals with the symptom and not the illness. Increasing technical training, giving tax incentives and targeting services toward "hard to serve" populations don't really get at the heart of the problem.
The "plan" seems to be not much more than extending unemployment benefits.
Lately, we've seen a welcome drop in the unemployment rate and an increase in the number of jobs created in the private sector. At the same time, long-term unemployment remains at a record high.
And just who are the long-term unemployed anyway? The majority are middle-aged, marginally educated, semi-skilled workers whose jobs and/or the industry in which they worked have disappeared and aren't going to return. Ever.
They are workers who need to learn a new set of skills for new industries if they are going to get back to work.
I see three factors affecting long-term unemployment. The first is automation, the second is the increased productivity of American workers (closely related to the first), and the third is that trade agreements haven't always worked to America's benefit job-wise.
American industries become more efficient every day and produce more goods with fewer workers. Some social scientists will tell you there simply isn't enough work to go around.
But the data says there are still more than three million unfilled jobs. The incremental approach isn't going to solve the problem. The country needs bold, innovative solutions and bolder, more innovative leaders. In order to retool the workers, we need to rethink our approaches to solving the real problem of long-term unemployment — the "skills gap" between what skills employers need and the skills unemployed workers have.
Many people smarter than I have written about the "skills gap." Even more, talk about it. However, there have been few serious efforts to define the skills gap in terms of specific jobs for specific employers in specific regions.
I think Minnesota may have taken the first bold, innovative step if not to solve the problem at least to understand it.
Minnesota is embarking on a project to develop "precise projections" of how many workers Minnesota companies are going to hire, the regions of the state in which those jobs will be created, and the skillset applicants for those jobs are going to need.
The initiative has two worthwhile goals. The first is to ensure alignment of the state's certificate and degree programs, as well as the state's job-training programs, with employer requirements. The second is to "create unified regional strategies that focus public, private and nonprofits resources on closing regional skills gaps."
Through a series of "listening sessions" with Minnesota employers, key players responsible for helping to educate and train the workforce will determine whether their programs align with employer needs.
It will be interesting to follow the Minnesota initiative to see how they move from gathering data to changing and aligning programs to getting their long term unemployed back to work.
Their approach is certainly more innovative than simply extending unemployment benefits.
Paul Grasso is the executive director of the North Country Workforce Investment Board, the counties' designated workforce-development planning agency, and the North Country Workforce Partnership Inc.