Summit addresses Georgia’s jobs crisis

State-based solutions are sought, but some experts are skeptical

Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond knows Monday’s jobs summit isn’t the silver bullet that will fix the state’s unemployment problems, but it’s a start.

The 24-month recession has overwhelmed many of the traditional social programs and benefits used to help the unemployed get back on their feet. And the usual state and federal government response to helping the unemployed no longer work, said Thurmond, who came up with idea for the summit last year.

“Most of the safety net programs were primarily designed to support and assist women and children,” Thurmond said. “Now you have an unemployed population that’s predominately male, and somehow the system is not working as effectively.”

The all-day summit at Georgia Tech is expected to draw about 100 people, including economists, business, labor and community leaders, academics, everyday workers and the unemployed for strategy brainstorming, roundtable discussions and economic presentations. Among those taking part is Georgia State University economist Rajeev Dhawan, who will give his forecast for the jobs market.

The summit comes a month after the White House jobs summit. With the exception of California, Georgia is believed to be the only other state that is hosting a jobs summit to deal with pressing unemployment.

Value of event debated

The “Shaping Georgia’s Economic Destiny” summit will focus on five key areas:

• Georgia’s discouraged, unemployed and underemployed workers.

• How existing federal, state, local and nonprofit resources can be strategically matched to specific demographic groups to stimulate private sector job creation and hiring.

• How the shifting demographics of Georgia’s discouraged, unemployed and underemployed are affecting state policy and the delivery of employment, training and educational opportunities.

• Enhancing existing training and educational opportunities to help Georgians become more competitive in the job market.

• How federal income support programs such as unemployment insurance, Work Opportunity Tax Credits, food stamps, and earned income tax credits can be redeployed to help workers as they gain new skills and jobs.

“Obviously what we’ve done as a nation has not worked to address this problem,” Thurmond said. “This [summit is about] stepping back to take a fresh look.”

The summit has drawn mixed reaction among economic and policy experts, some of whom question the effectiveness of such a gathering.

“I applaud the commissioner for trying to bring everybody together to see what can be done and try to develop some solutions the state can implement,” said Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “It’s positive to make the attempt if there are creative ways to bring new ideas to the table.”

However, he added, “You can do a lot more with federal policy than you can do with state. States don’t have as many bullets in their holsters as feds do. We must be realistic. There’s no silver bullet that the state of Georgia has. There are a limited amount of things state policy can do to have a fundamental effect on jobs.”

Economist Mark Vitner, a Georgia native who now works for Wells Fargo in Charlotte, was more blunt.

“I’m not quite sure what job summits accomplish. I don’t mean to be overly critical of politicians,” said Vitner, Wells Fargo’s managing director and senior economist . “[But] a lot of times, when they don’t know what else there is to do, they call a job summit. It gives the appearance they’re doing something.”

‘A Georgia solution’

Thurmond brushed off such assertions.

“Most of the people who say that are employed. They have the luxury of being a naysayer,” said Thurmond. “I talked to an [unemployed] man in Dalton recently who doesn’t give a rip if I’m a Democrat or Republican. I don’t have a Democratic answer, and the Republicans don’t have any answers either. But I’m totally convinced there’s a Georgia solution. My commitment is to do everything I can to help people who are unemployed find jobs.”

It’s a tall order.

There are 50 percent fewer jobs nationally than there were when the U.S. job market peaked in June 2007. As a result, there are 6.4 unemployed workers for every job opening nationwide, according to new government data released last week.

Here in Georgia, nearly 500,000 people are out of work in the worst job market in the state in 30 years. The recession has dramatically reshaped the state’s workforce, family dynamics and finances. It has hit working men especially hard due to heavy job losses in construction, manufacturing and other male-dominated fields, said Thurmond who produced a white paper last summer on the trend.

Last month, for the first time in its 74-year history, the state labor department had to borrow money — $70 million — from the federal government to pay insurance benefits because its insurance trust fund “is drained.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue is not expected to attend the event, but Thurmond noted ideas that emerge from the summit will be presented to the governor.

“The biggest stumbling block is the hyper-political atmosphere in developing strategies in this state,” Thurmond said.

The timing of the summit is no accident. It’s being held on the federal observance of the 81st birthday of the slain civil rights leader and Atlanta native, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Mrs. Coretta Scott King [King’s wife] always emphasized King Day was a day on [the job], not a day off ,” said Thurmond. “And I couldn’t think of a better day to emphasize what we are trying to do. King understood the value of work.”