‘Jobs summit': Start with help for the jobless

In this "Darwinian job market," as the state's labor commissioner labeled it on Monday, survival is a challenge even for the fittest. And help sounds like an idea from another time and another economy.

The state's jobs crisis is in fact deepening, but there is help out there -- help that many workers haven't been using and may not even know about.

Programs like subsidies for school, training for new skills and income tax credits are all under-used – but they could soften the economic blow of being laid off, panelists and attendees said at Monday’s “jobs summit” in Midtown.

Moreover, speakers argued, the flexibility to learn prepares the worker for the future and the economy for growth.

The all-day event, which drew about 160 to the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center, was hosted by Labor Commissioner Michael L. Thurmond, who called it “a first step.”

“This is a Darwinian job market,” he said. “We can respond to this man-made tragedy in a way that will limit the severity and duration of the recession.”

Thurmond began talking about such a conference last summer when the official unemployment rate hit double digits. The labor market has steadily deteriorated since.

And while the jobless rate for November was 10.2 percent, new research shows that the sum of unemployed, underemployed and discouraged workers amounts to 587,500 people, Thurmond said: That is 15.3 percent of the state’s non-farm workforce.

Many jobs have vanished for good, so new skills are needed, said Nancy Johnson, president of the Atlanta Urban League. “We tell people, when you walk in the door, you must – you absolutely must – go back to school.”

Many believe more education is too costly, but there are Hope Grants and Pell Grants that cover tuition and books, said Ron Jackson, commissioner of the Technical College System. “You can basically go to school for free in Georgia.”

The state’s job growth is hobbled by its educational failures, he argued: About 1.3 million Georgian adults have no high school diploma. “They are -- for all practical purposes in a 21st century job market -- unemployable.”

But officials conceded they need to get the message out.

“I think education is a key to driving down unemployment and the unemployment rate in the state of Georgia,” said Anthony Tricoli, president of Georgia Perimeter College, now the state’s third-largest school. “This is about marketing our institutions and marketing our success.”

Some of that message might need to be targeted: Men make up more than their share of the jobless in this recession, but far less than their share of many government training programs.

But gender may not figure in other shortfalls.

For example, state residents last year did not receive $2 billion in the earned income tax credit simply because they did not ask, said Carliss Williams, regional administrator for the U.S. Administration of Children and Families. “Each year, every state leaves a lot of money on the table because people are not applying.”

Yet some better-known programs are intensely exploited.

For instance, one in every three Fulton County households receives food stamps, said John Eaves, chairman of the county commission.

That sign of economic distress is not likely to ease soon.

Last week, the Labor Department reported that initial jobless claims had crested above 100,000 in December – only the sixth month in six digits since 1972.

December’s unemployment rate is to be announced on Thursday.

The job cuts will continue through much of this year, warned Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Georgia State Economic Forecasting Center, in a talk to the conference.

Consumers don’t want to spend and even healthy businesses can’t get the capital they need to grow, he said. “You can give all the tax cuts you want and it won’t make any difference until you clean up the banking system.”

At day’s end, attendees were offered a chance to offer ideas and innovations. Among proposals from the floor:

  • a statewide business "accelerator," like the effort organized by Savannah State University now involving 45 companies in that area. The newly created project provides administrative services for start-ups.
  • a law that would give newly formed companies a two-year tax holiday.
  • a program to develop "green" jobs.
  • expansion of mass transit.
  • a commitment of state agencies and companies to use small businesses as contractors.
  • start of an economic development bank combined with lobbying on big companies to bring jobs home from overseas.

Using the conference discussions, the Labor Department in the next several weeks will put together a set of plans and proposals to be called, “Georgia Jump Start." That report will provide talking points that will lead to action, Thurmond said.

“These are difficult times, but these are not hopeless times.”