Everyone is looking for a plan to create jobs in America. But what if we set our sights on helping people to work, rather than getting them hired to traditional positions with traditional salaries and benefit packages?
There's a big difference between work and jobs. The U.S. economy is actually primed to create millions of positions for people who are ready and able to work on a contract, part-time or project basis. Already the size of what I call the self-employed "free agent" work force has exploded, encompassing about 44 percent of the work force or nearly 80 million people.
Meanwhile, jobs in the classic sense peaked in early 2008 at about 139 million and recently have languished at about 130 million.
A new approach is needed, one that acknowledges the sea change in what employment means. The time is ripe to overhaul rules, regulations, obstacles and policies that hinder individuals from working on a contract basis and that block businesses from hiring the talent they need.
Young people especially are especially ripe for this approach because they see that conventional jobs don't promise the security they once did. More and more are choosing varied projects because they bring training, flexibility and work/life balance.
Although the global financial crisis obviously has pushed some workers into free agency involuntarily, three out of four say they choose it because they value the freedom, flexibility, life-work balance and entrepreneurial benefits. And more than half of companies say they're planning to increase the number of free agents they hire in 2012.
But let's look at the difficulties facing a free-lance graphic designer, for example, who decides she doesn't want or can't find a job and who prefers to make a living selling her skills to a few different clients.
Her client will be exempt from payroll, unemployment and other taxes on payments to her -- one obvious reason to hire her. The contractor will make up part of that revenue by paying self-employment tax. But if the client trips on the rules and classifies her as a contractor incorrectly, the fines, costs and other penalties are stiff. That's why some employers avoid giving work to contractors.
The self-employed entrepreneur -- a company of one, really -- gets too little encouragement, guidance and assistance. She could be earning more in today's weak economy; and she may go uncounted in the unemployment statistics.
Tricky IRS definitions are just one example of needless complication. How about the difficulties a free agent must overcome buying health insurance and saving for retirement? Government could and should streamline regulations covering free agents, and expand programs that help new entrants to the labor market understand the alternatives to conventional employment.
As demographics, economy and social trends converge, it's clear that no comprehensive jobs policy can succeed without addressing this large and fast-growing segment of the U.S. work force.
Reform rules and tax codes. Provide help for those who want to be their own bosses. Employment isn't the fixed, long-term proposition it was. The presidential candidate who offers policies that address the new reality of "work" and "jobs" in America will have validated a key credential for economic leadership.
This piece was previously published in the "Chicago Tribune."