07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Case for a National Office of Transition

President Obama is seeking massive changes in the way the US is operating when it comes to energy, transportation, agriculture and labor, among others. These seismic shifts will involve huge numbers of workers who may be coming out of an industry or trade that is no longer viable/sustainable, while the new Green Economy and Boomer-fueled health care industry boom will open up hundreds of thousands of jobs, many of which will require new training and skills. Transitioning whole industries and workforces in new directions is a huge logistical issue that needs organization at a level and size unseen in the past. Accordingly, there ought to be a National Office of Transition to manage that shift with an even larger eye towards planning and structuring it, especially when it comes to our labor force.

Putting thousands of laid off auto and manufacturing workers into colleges and schools to train them for future employment means helping link them into the private sector by funneling quality, well-trained employees into well-paying positions that will soon need them. This could involve cooperating with various colleges and universities by both retrofitting and adding to their campuses to create learning centers that will thrive both during this transitional push and for generations after. But besides facilitating the retraining of whole workforces, the government must work and coordinate directly with the leaders of dying or unstable industries to help them transition their infrastructure, labor, environmental practices and R&D. Partner with them to innovate into the green future and create jobs that have a steady flow of workers freshly trained with the latest knowledge and technology. And give people a stake in their work by giving them a living wage, health coverage and a decent retirement plan. It sounds so idyllic until you realize why it hasn't happened yet and why it's a fight to make it happen now: corporations are terrified of change. They see nothing but lost revenue where they should see opportunity. And we still haven't come to grips with the surge of veterans that will be coming home as the Iraq Occupation winds down. These people need to be trained and placed in new jobs that will enable them to rejoin society with the feelings of pride, dignity and self-worth of being gainfully employed and able to support the family they have been apart from for so long.

However, where there is money to be made, there is someone happy to make it. Some of our major industries are very comfortable with the way they make their profits and they see change as a threat to those profits. While those profits may be in danger with change, there are other profit streams that can open up and eventually supplant the one they're so concerned about, even surpass it. Yet they still cling to the status quo because it's what they know. The oil and auto companies fight alternative fuels and higher mpg instead of co-opting it and becoming leaders in that industry. The prison system lobbies against drug reform because it's bad for business instead of our Justice Department looking at sentencing laws with an eye towards the health issues and economics that drive them. The defense industry needs war to thrive and so it lobbies to bloat our defense budget instead of preparing for other uses of its organization during peacetime (much like during WWII when we expediently retooled our manufacturing plants for wartime usage). Being resistant to change is nothing new for humanity, but this shortsightedness usually heralds our undoing.

Besides money playing a big role, this inability to see change as an opportunity severely hobbles us in the great race to find balance and harmony on this beautiful planet before we burn, slash, rape and mutilate it into an uninhabitable cesspool that shakes us humans off like a bad case of fleas. Our economy is changing and there will be new jobs that need skilled and qualified workers. Time magazine's most recent issue on the future of work predicts a big rise in job opportunities in areas like personal and home health care aides, nursing aides, medical assistants, computer software engineers, network-systems and data-communications analysts, personal financial advisors, veterinarians and vet technicians, post-secondary teachers and more. By coordinating a mass re-education of workers shed from contracting industries, the US can give these workers a solid shot at a stable future. Imagine if the hundreds of thousands of autoworkers laid off from GM were not just collecting unemployment, but were being trained at local schools for jobs that were waiting for them once they were qualified.

For instance, if we know that by 2016 there will be an additional 750,000 new jobs in personal and home health care aides, we could have 750,000 people who are currently unemployed being trained for long term jobs that are already short of qualified candidates. Add to that the jobs provided by schools as they gain funding to upgrade and expand classrooms and hire more teachers, creating facilities prepared to give our current and future students and world-class education.

But what of the companies foundering in their aim to stay the course? The ones that shed jobs and still are billions in the red? Should the government bail them out? Or simply help steer the ship in a new direction where it can go on its own power? The fluctuations on the demand side -- let's use the old buggy whip manufacturer losing business as the auto industry grows in market share -- should trigger an effort by the company to send their workers into a retraining program rather than give them pink slips and say "Good luck!" Whether Buggy Whip, Inc. turns itself into an auto company or not, those workers will have jobs waiting for them when they come out of retraining. Just imagine what could have come of our defense industry after World War II if we helped it transition it's workforce into peacetime businesses rather than let the Military Industrial Complex grow fat on the various wars and conflicts we've managed to stay in since (see Eugene Jarecki's excellent documentary Why We Fight for more on this).

When you think of an industry in flux that is shedding jobs -- manufacturing and auto seem to be highest profile in the news -- just imagine the difference an Office of Transition could make. Take a look at the US Dept. of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Mass Layoffs Summary for April 2009, which shows that the industries with the largest number of mass layoff initial claims in April 2009 included school and employee bus transportation, construction machinery manufacturing, food service contractors, tax prep services, discount department stores, professional employer organizations and hotels and motels, not including casinos. (Evidently, no matter the numbers of job losses, casinos are still doing great business. Go figure.) Each of these industries has thousands of people who are recently jobless. Imagine if, instead of just collecting unemployment and looking for a job (good luck out there), they collected unemployment and immediately started training for a new career with a guaranteed job on the back end that gets them off unemployment and back on the payrolls to contribute to the tax base. Instead of the government giving you handouts, they are actually investing in your career and sending you on a path to productivity and financial security. In April alone we lost 563,000 jobs. Yet we know where there are new jobs being created by new industries (alternative energy) and old (health care). All we have to do is connect the dots between our labor pool and American employment needs.

Just look at what Michigan is already doing with their No Worker Left Behind program, which was reported on by Arthur Delaney in his terrific Huffington Post piece. Here's a highlight:

Michigan's No Worker Left Behind program provides up to two years of free tuition toward school or training for careers in certain high-demand fields. The program has put 68,785 people into training since its 2007 launch, according to Andy Levin, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth.

"No Worker Left Behind is going like gangbusters, and the pace of putting people into training is accelerating, but we don't have enough money to train everybody who wants to be trained," Levin told the Huffington Post.

Just imagine if that was a Federally funded national program; the possibilities are immense, especially when you consider the numbers of unemployed people in the US in April alone.

For those numbers, I encourage you to check out the latest BLS Employment Situation Summary, released May 8. Yes, it's a little dry, but as you scan down the industries that are hemorrhaging jobs in April manufacturing lost 149,000, construction lost 110,000, professional & business services lost 122,000, retail lost 47,000 -- imagine if all those people left their jobs on Friday and started retraining on Monday at a local school or college retrofitted to handle the influx. The investment in our institutions would benefit generations to come while the preparation of our labor force for near-future employment will give our economy the foundation it needs to be healthy again both now and long term. And instead of unemployment benefits just being a government handout, they can instead offer a chance at a new beginning for those who need it the most.

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