Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Richard Attias: Enough Talk: It's Time for Action on Jobs

During my 15 years as a member of the French workforce, the issue of chomage (unemployment) was a fundamental part of everyday life and a constant subject of public anger, government debate and media focus. In the past few years of living in the U.S., I have encountered far less discussion of unemployment -- until very recently. Of course, in recent decades, unemployment in the U.S. has been less of a challenge than it has been in Europe. This is a double edged-sword: it is a source of great pride for many Americans and, at the same time, has rendered the country less resilient because it has much less of a safety net for those affected.

Jobs must be the number one priority of every government and business at this time -- it is without a doubt one of the most pressing global issue and at the heart of many of the uprisings that have been sprouting up across the Middle East and Asia. With that in mind, we designed the New York Forum to be a hyper-transparent platform for business and government leaders alike to come together to discuss, among other things, solutions to the staggering rates of unemployment we see in the U.S. today. We made the decision to dedicate a half-day of the program of the upcoming New York Forum to Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! �

For our part, as hosts of a major business forum, we felt a duty to enable dialogue between public and private officials to discuss jobs. Solutions do not appear out of thin air, and half of the battle is getting the right people in the room talking to each other. So we were so pleased that Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama, and four members of the president's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness agreed to hold a public meeting on the opening day of the New York Forum. We have not heard enough from corporate leaders on how they can spur job growth, and I look forward to hearing from Ms. Jarrett and the Council members as to how they see the way forward. Those leaders are AOL co-founder Steve Case, Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, Laura Tyson of the Haas School of Business and UBS Americas Chairman Robert Wolf.

But the 90-minute meeting that will take place at the NYF should only be the beginning. We need many more such gatherings if we are going to tackle the rising unemployment in this country seriously.

The Department of Labor's monthly job report showed unemployment creeping up to over 9 percent. Employers added only 54,000 jobs in May (apparently half of which were from McDonalds!), down from 232,000 in April.

We see the NYF session as a call to action. We would like to see governments around the world put together a list of incentives to stimulate the creation of jobs.

I would urge the private sector and political leaders to sit together more often and I think we should launch an emergency summit of the top few hundred leading CEOs, NGOs and policymakers to take action and seek solutions. Consider it like an emergency Camp David Retreat focused solely on Job Growth. For 48 hours, leaders should be obliged to work together to try and find solutions.

And the U.S. is not alone. Look at the global picture: India needs 1.2 million teachers, while 25 percent of Chinese undergraduates can't find work. South Africa will have to add one more job for every three that exist if today's unemployed are to be absorbed into the workforce.

So what should we do?

Short term: Instead of pouring more money into unemployment and welfare benefits, we should create huge incentives for corporations to recruit people who are currently unemployed -- creating tax breaks for companies who hire those who might otherwise have trouble finding work.

Medium term: As a non-American, I am consistently shocked by the poor condition of the U.S. infrastructure. I've seen more advanced airports, roads and schools in many of the third-world countries that I visit than some of those I have encountered across this country since moving to the U.S. A large number of unemployed can be put to work on much-needed infrastructure projects and be gainfully employed for the next few years. Infrastructure projects also have the added benefit of improving the productive capacity of a society in the future. This is what we call in French le cercle virtueux (a virtuous circle).

Long term: We should concentrate on teaching 21st century skills and training at school and encouraging and investing in innovation.

These challenges are certainly daunting, but the discussion needs to start somewhere. This is what The New York Forum set out to achieve.

Richard Attias is chairman of the New York Forum, and chairman of Columbia University's Center on Capitalism and Society.

The New York Forum will be held in New York, June 20-21.


Michelle Branch Nikki Reed Giuliana DePandi Izabella Scorupco Ana Paula Lemes

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