Obama’s Jobs Czar’s Plan : Will it Lower Unemployment?

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Jobs Czar Jeff Immelt (left) wants more small business lending and less regulation (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

How do we jump start a jobless economic recovery? According to the President’s Jobs and Competitiveness Council, it’s a combination of the familiar, the difficult and yesbut. In an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and American Express CEO Ken Chenault present a 5-part jobs program. The familiar includes facilitating small business loans and streamlining regulations. The pair say it’s too difficult for small business owners to obtain SBA funding. But isn’t the problem as much that businesses aren’t seeking to expand? True, banks have raised their credit standards, but clearly there’s money out there.  Likewise, streamlining the permit process is a great idea—providing there are projects to streamline. Our infrastructure is a shambles, but Congress is unwilling to spend on schools, bridges, fast rail or a 21st century electrical grid that would make us more competitive as a nation. We’re on the fast track to nowhere.

It’s not surprising that a column co-authored by the head of a travel-related company would push for increased tourism. And it’s not a bad thing, either. The complaint is that you can’t get here from there. Because of strict U.S. visa regulations, which require in-person visits to American consulates, it’s taxing for people in places like India and China—where outbound trips are increasing prodigiously—to get cleared to land in the U.S. The process could be made easier—say, with video interviews via Skype or TelePresence. But it’s going to be difficult to get beyond what, at a minimum are legitimate security concerns and at worst open hostility to foreigners in order to make the country more tourist-friendly. Especially in Alabama, where a new state law will have authorities stopping people with foreign accents.

Two other recommendations fall into the category of yesbut. To get construction workers back on the job, the pair suggest not new construction but a massive retrofitting of the built environment. This is a great idea in that the best way to save energy isn’t to build new, which isn’t going to happen in the current economy, but to renovate the millions of buildings already up that absolutely leak energy. Yes, nice idea, but where’s the funding going to come from? With commercial vacancy rates still high in many markets, landlords are in no mood pour money into their buildings without being assured a payback. The payback could come partly through federal and state tax credits, but states are still struggling with their own budget gaps.

Finally, there’s a call to solve the biggest issue of the current state of joblessness: the gigantic mismatch between available jobs and available skills.  The pair note the lack of workers with advanced manufacturing skills and call on the private sector to partner with community colleges and vo-tech schools to teach workers the needed skills. But the private sector been busy firing workers, GE and AMEX included, and as my colleague Rana Foroohar pointed out in Time’s cover story this week, once they’re let go they can’t move to cities where the work is because they’re stuck in their underwater mortgages. There’s a lack of mobility to go along with a lack of retraining opportunities. And all of it is underlined by a lack of empathy in Congress for the unemployed and the underemployed. Would today’s Congress have passed bailout legislation for the auto companies, which saved hundreds of thousands of jobs? Unlikely. Asking it to spend proactively to save the jobs of the future is a stretch.

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