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Business and the Cacophony of the Jobs Reports

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Alamy
Alamy

The problem with the Information Age is that there is too much information -- and no coherent framework to make sense of it all. We can hear this in the cacophony that follows every monthly and quarterly economic report: loud and discordant voices reaching for the past; fearing for the future; blaming business, government, immigration policy, taxes, foreign trade. It won't stop until we build a believable framework that allows us to dispassionately sort and make sense of seemingly contradictory facts.

Here's what I mean. Which of the following statements are true?

  • Employment is up slightly in the private sector, down in the public realm, and soaring among robots and other computerized devices.
  • Outsourcing is up, offshoring is down, and on-shoring is a global phenomenon.
  • Middle-class jobs are being eaten by automation and employers can't find the skilled workers they need.
  • Immigrants are filling jobs once held by American-born workers and businesses lament the dearth of high-skill visas.
  • More and more workers are contingent -- a state of liberation for some (who couldn't bear sitting behind a desk, 9-5) and imprisonment for others (who can't get steady work and benefits).
  • Landing one's first job often requires having had a job before, and work is becoming the norm in retirement.

The correct answer, as I read it, is "all of the above."

Our challenge is that we are flummoxed by incongruous data; we don't know how to manage the tension of a new world that is both/and, not either/or. So we sit on the sidelines with every economic announcement, cheering for the life or death of whatever data bit or trend that ignites our emotions, feeling more and more helpless and perplexed.

Here's a suggestion: Business must lead us out of this. Business must lead in helping government, education, the civic sector, and members of the present and future workforce make sense of the new normal that will forever be filled with complex, dynamic contradictions.

But business leadership doesn't mean that everyone else has to get out of the way. It means that everyone else has to get involved -- not meddling in businesses' business, of course, but in creating and communicating appropriate responses to the post-recession realities that have all of us in a quandary.

This business leadership won't be effective if it engages only the traditional players, the big employers that have been the economic pillars of our past. They are important, but essential are the start-ups, the small firms, the for-benefit corporations, the nonprofits with for-profit arms, the contract service firms, the aspiring entrepreneurs with disruptive ideas, the experienced business leaders who took early retirement.

This leadership requires a suspension of old assumptions and patterns of engagement. No more of the old us-and-them. None of the insider jargon or the push and pull of demands from the "other side." We may get to that sooner or later, but let's not start with it.

This leadership can't be fueled by angst over existing problems; rather it must pull on the energy of new possibilities. That's why non-traditional employers and risk-takers are so important. It's why professional associations, labor unions, and civic groups need to step forward with their best ideas. Let the nay-sayers stay home by the television. Everyone else, come on up.

And such leadership must take hold at the level of local and metropolitan markets, where companies scramble to access the talent and tools they need and workers worry about how they can fit in. We're into this in St. Louis; it will happen there, and it can happen anywhere that people put their will to it.

When business responds to a challenge such as this, it puts us atop the wave of collaboration and co-creation that is the good side of the Information Age. What more data do we need?