The Best Jobs Idea I've Heard From a Candidate So Far

A few years ago my friend Sam Novey ran social media for a relatively unknown candidate during the race for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. The candidate billed himself as a "social entrepreneur" looking for grassroots solutions to our major problems. At the time, I had just founded an Internet start-up focused on local civic engagement, and his message appealed to me.

I thought he was a little idealistic, but I joined his mailing list and I stayed on it even after he lost the election. Today I'm glad I did.

Alan Khazei's proposal on jobs is remarkable for its simplicity. We give out 99 weeks of unemployment insurance now. What if we turned that into a voucher that employers could redeem for 99 weeks of wages?

To put it in perspective, 99 weeks is nearly 2 years. Unemployment insurance covers a fraction of former wages, so if you were making $40,000 a year and were laid off, you might receive $10,000 in unemployment (it varies state by state). Under this plan, the unemployed would have the option to give money they had not yet collected to an employer to put towards wages. In the example above that could allow a new company to hire you for your former salary but only pay $30,000.

As a caveat: my company has never employed more than four people at a time, and our employees have all been college educated. That said, there are a few reasons I think this is a good idea.

1) There is a powerful psychological benefit to working. Being unemployed sucks. I've had enough friends and family crushed by unemployment in this recession to see that firsthand. Unemployment costs much more than lost wages, it is worse than it has been since we started measuring it more than 60 years ago, and a larger portion of the unemployed have been unemployed for an extended period of time (in July the average length of unemployment was 40.4 weeks). The more tools we can give people to reenter the workforce, the better.

2) As an employer, it feels a lot better to hire someone away from another job than it does to hire someone who is unemployed. There is a certain feeling of confidence that comes with knowing that the person chose to work with you over other options. This is just one of the reasons it can be so much harder to find a job when you have been unemployed for a long period of time.

3) Being able to hire someone for free or at a discount makes it easier to take a shot creating or filling a position you might not usually hire for. More than that, it gives you an incentive to look at candidates who are out of work. Some will argue that these jobs will be lost when the insurance runs out, but they forget that when you look at the cost of recruiting, interviewing, and training, employers have a strong incentive to retain talent. Additionally, any voucher system could easily have a provision saying it could only be used for new jobs, or jobs where a person quit or was fired with cause.

I'll be the first to admit that, as with any new idea, there are plenty of potential problems with this, and there are plenty of debates to be had about specific aspects of the proposal. But, what I like most about this idea is that it isn't really left or right, it's just practical. My hope is that we've got a Congress that can get itself together long enough to debate some point on its actual merits, deal with potential pitfalls, and push forward a bill that will actually create jobs.