THE BLOG
06/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Opportunity: Workers Need -- and Want -- a New Deal

162,000 new jobs in March, according to Friday's report from the Department of Labor. That's good news, there is no question about that, given the 8.4 million lost since the recession began.

59.6 percent on the March manufacturing index, according to Thursday's report from the Institute of Supply Management. That's good news too, since the index reflects the growing optimism of purchasing managers in manufacturing firms across the country: that index has been growing for 8 months now and the March increase was the biggest since 2004.

But let's hold off on the fireworks for a while -- and no, not because we've all become jaded and cynical after so much economic pain.

Dig a bit deeper into the numbers and you quickly understand that an economy starting to recover doesn't necessarily mean that better times are just around the corner.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate was stuck at 9.7 percent in March, while the number of unemployed and underemployed actually rose to 16.9 percent. The number of American out of work for at least six months rose, as did the number of people working part-time who wanted full-time jobs. Ditto for the number of people "marginally attached to the labor force." That's BLS-speak for people who have essentially given up looking for a job.

The bottom line here is that it is going to take a long time for the country to dig itself out of this very deep jobs hole.

The national priority must be to quickly get as many people as possible back to working full-time. But close behind is the urgent need to create better jobs that won't be just as vulnerable the next time the economy stumbles. And that will happen again. (Check out "This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly" by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff if you doubt that.)

Over the past several decades, we have designed (or responded to, but that's for another day) a global economy in which every business - and the employees in those businesses - must be able to turn on a dime whenever the economic winds change direction.

Being flexible, adaptive and nimble makes a business stronger. It is far from clear that employees do so well. In fact, millions of Americans have had it up to their eyeballs with "embracing their inner nimbleness." The flip side of being relentlessly nimble, even if you're lucky enough to keep your job when your employer turns on his dime, is being constantly afraid: "what's going to happen to me and how will it affect my family?"

Does anyone sitting in an executive office still believe that fear actually encourages employees to work hard and smart? We need many more jobs that provide the stability which ordinary citizens need and this is the moment to do that, while so much energy is going into the recovery process.

Americans are profoundly tired of "just-in-time" employment, according to a mid-March survey of workers by the consulting firm Towers Watson. In interviews with thousands of people across the country, half said they now want to work for a single employer for their entire working lives. The "free agent nation" and the Bush-era "ownership society" have lost their luster during this recession. Over and over, the people in this survey said they are more interested in a stable job than in even "substantially higher levels of compensation." Other studies in recent years in the world of behavioral economics have reported similar findings.

It's a golden opportunity for employers smart enough to understand the powerful relationship between loyalty, productivity and profits. An employee who believes that she can plan a life for herself through steady work is an employee who will take risks to innovate and be flexible when hard times hit. Her employer's demand for nimbleness in the workplace won't threaten her ability to raise a family.

More new jobs and more confident manufacturers do represent good news: Let's hope April brings more of the same. But "more" jobs isn't good enough: the country needs "better" jobs.