We Need a Practical and Comprehensive Jobs Program

10/31/2011 08:32 am ET | Updated Dec 31, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

With the planet's population now at seven billion, and the American presidential election starting to focus on Republicans in Iowa, it's easy to get discouraged about the state of the planet. As an educator, I am fortunate to spend a great deal of time with students who are unwilling to fall into the trap of hopelessness. Some are occupying Wall Street and others are focusing on developing a deeper understanding the management, policy and scientific issues needed to develop a sustainable planet. Some are doing both.

These students are working hard to learn and are sacrificing time and money in the process. Their goal is to contribute to making the world a better place and to do that they will need to find meaningful employment. They tend to reject blind consumerism and so they are not about accumulating treasure, but they need the security that comes from paid work. Fortunately the field of environmental sustainability is growing and most of our graduates are finding good jobs in this tough economy. But it is not easy. The job market is unstructured and difficult to navigate. We work with our students on networking and bringing alums and employers to campus, but no one has any faith in the job market until they get an offer or two.

There is another emotion attached to the optimism I see: a sense of apprehension, and a profound concern that getting a start in the professional world is getting more and more difficult. I admit that when I was the age of most of my students I was idiotically oblivious to the world of professional employment. I just assumed that when I wanted it, it would be there waiting for me. In contrast, today's young people start plotting their career path in junior high school and select their extracurricular activities with an eye toward college applications. While I am not arguing for obliviousness, I worry deeply about the pervasive insecurity we are saddling young people with today.

The public policy solutions to this are obvious. We need to figure out a way to provide incentives for private job creation and we need to develop more public funded employment to build our communities. This includes infrastructure, education, scientific research, social services, community building and health care. And yes, it means our taxes must go up to fund these jobs. We are now part of a fast changing global economy that will require constant adjustments if we are to take full advantage of the talents of our people. It is not acceptable to passively acquiesce to what is starting to look like permanently high levels of unemployment. We need a workable, practical and aggressive national employment policy. The hidden hand of the market may create jobs, but without government intervention they might easily end up in India or China instead of America. The impact of unemployment on older people is devastating and well understood. The impact on young people is also starting to emerge and the damage may be extensive. The cost may well be the sense of confidence of an entire generation.

While students studying environmental sustainability here at Columbia will do better than most, when these students start to get bitten by the insecurity bug, I can only imagine what graduates of the schools I attended are feeling today. I was not an Ivy Leaguer or a prep school boy; I went to James Madison High School in Brooklyn, Franklin College of Indiana and SUNY Buffalo. These schools are loaded with talented people. America needs to make use of these human resources -- we must find a way to put all of our people to work. This recession is now in its third year. A recovery that sees GDP growth without job growth is still a recession as far as I'm concerned. In fact a "recovery" when unemployment refuses to come down may actually be worse than a pure recession. Anemic job growth is starting to look like a permanent feature of America's place in the global economy.

It is clear that to succeed in the brain-based economy of the 21st century, we must create high quality and high prestige training opportunities that do not require four year colleges and professional school follow up. Businesses themselves might be given public incentives to invent these programs to serve their own human resource needs.

This planet faces many challenges. We need to figure out a way to create a high throughput, environmentally sustainable economy that makes it possible for 7-10 billion people to live a high quality of life. The fact that government sometimes stumbles when it intervenes in the economy does not excuse the need to try. Just like FDR argued for experimentation followed by frank assessment and program revision, we too need to learn how to ensure full employment in the new global economy. It was Roosevelt who famously said in May 1932:

"It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

Government must learn how to do the job of stimulating jobs. I accept the criticism that America's government does not do this very well. I do not accept the argument that we can't figure out how to do get this done. It will take trial and error and political courage to admit that some programs don't work. In the 24-7 web-based media bubble, our elected leaders have replaced tough management with political spin. Nevertheless, our economic and political stability and well-being requires that we develop a comprehensive and practical jobs program. So let's do it already.