Regardless of Tom Friedman's op-ed column in the New York Times calling for more start-ups, the private sector is not going to create the number of jobs needed to make a substantial impact on unemployment, at least not in the foreseeable future. Automation, "lean" manufacturing, office technology, Web-based businesses, outsourcing, and the expanding use of temporary workers, are all contributing to structural unemployment. Companies (new and old) just don't need as many permanent employees as they did in the past to do similar work. In response, the Obama Administration is turning to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to create jobs. The federal government announced recently that $234 million will be given to Americorps to put 57,000 additional people to work doing projects in low-income communities around the country. The plan is to increase the number of people employed through Americorps from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017. But these jobs are not permanent and the question becomes: what happens to these employees and other temporary public sector workers if jobs growth remains low? What will they do after their public service job ends.
Employment, even in low paying, short-term jobs, can have a very positive impact on workers. Aside from the income (which is meager in the case of Americorps), people who are doing important work benefit from developing enhanced self-esteem, having a structured day, making new friends, widening their network of potential employers, and learning good work habits. Years ago, I evaluated the Youth Conservation Corps in Michigan which employed young adults for a year to do needed conservation projects on State property. These were youth who otherwise would have been unemployed, on the streets, and at great risk of ending up in the justice system, costing taxpayers much more than what it cost to employ them in the YCC for a year. In interviews, these young people told me that the greatest benefit to them was that they felt better about themselves and what they were capable of doing. The program made them feel worthwhile.
Low paying, temporary jobs in the community can make a difference, but if the intent is that the formerly unemployed become long-term contributors to the economic vitality of a community, these programs must do more than simply put people to work. Workers need guidance in how they can learn the skills they need for their careers, not only the immediate job. They need people around them who communicate high expectations for their performance and their learning. They need someone supervising them who cares about their success and tells this to them. They need the opportunity to practice new skills until they get it right. And they need constant feedback on how they are doing. A job can have short-term financial benefits for the worker, but long-term, community benefits will only come about through active support from supervisors and mentors.