Saturday, July 9, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons...

We know, make lemonade. How tired do we get of hearing that when we’re in (excuse the pun) a pickle. The idea of turning something unfortunate into something great is reminiscent of attempts to turn lead into gold (alchemy) or squeeze water from a rock. Sometimes the sugar we need is not in an obvious spot, though that’s probably part of the point. We have to be creative, think out of the box, like a puzzle or riddle. The sugar could be somewhere completely unexpected.

Take alchemy. Yes, they were unsuccessful at making gold.  But their work founded the entire modern science of chemistry (that’s pretty sweet in a sugar-y way).  Failure in the immediate objective was dwarfed by the unintended consequence of their research.  Sure, this benefit was not obvious (or likely fulfilling) at first but upon retrospect chemistry is kind of a big deal.  It helped bring us into the modern age.  Think where we would be if we didn’t understand the composition of compounds that go into the goods we use and consume on a daily basis!  What kind of world would we live in if there were no such thing as plastic (or Oreos, Doritos, etc.).
It is an ambitious task to find the sweet spot in seemingly sour things, but there is always some opportunity or lesson we can take with us and apply to something to make it better.  With the recent spate of economic indicators indicating a “soft patch” in the U.S. economy (and our wallets), we already needed to put our thinking caps on.  Now with yesterday’s employment numbers, we will need to put our alchemist hats on.  After adding just 25,000 jobs in May, the U.S. economy added a paltry 18,000 jobs in June (and knowing the data source, this 18,000 could easily be revised down to zero) with the private sector (non-government) adding just 57,000 jobs.  Revisions to the May and April jobs numbers took away 44,000 of the initially reported gains. 
For those of you looking for work, these numbers show some basic trends: construction = bad, government = bad, education = bad, finance = bad, everything else = not as bad.  (Job seekers: There are other jobs numbers you could look at that break it down further by region.)  It’s no secret that jobs have not come back as quickly as after other recessions.  We don’t need statisticians to tell us that even 2 years after the official recession jobs are hard to come by, with little to choose from (like the produce section at the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon).  Job vacancies seem to be in one of two buckets: low skill, low pay or too-high-skilled-for-you for good pay.  You finally (after searching hundreds of job postings and poorly designed job sites) find a job that would use your brain, and previous experience, and you meet the 15 posted requirements.  Only to find out that so did the other 5,000 people who applied.  It would appear these were just the de facto minimum requirements.  To actually get an interview you have to do much better (like speak 8 languages, develop a cure for cancer, unilaterally save the whales, or – more likely, know someone who works there already). 
The fact is the U.S. economy is not adding enough jobs to keep up with the number of workers entering the labor force (pool of eligible workers); indeed the numbers now reveal a trend of a decreasing labor force participation rate (not good).  Almost half of those counted as unemployed have been unemployed for over 27 weeks (that is a lot).  The longer someone is unemployed or too discouraged to be included in the labor force the less desirable they may become to employers.  (And we won’t get into the drain having no job imposes on entitlement programs paid for by us.)  This does not have to be a lost cause, we can and must take the failure of our economy to create jobs and make it into something better (find the sugar).  One option is to address the observation that our labor force is having a hard time matching the skills needed by those companies now hiring.  If companies are global, why should we assume their labor forces are not?  For the bucket of high skill, high pay jobs we are competing with people around the world; it’s a different ball game.  With our alchemist hats on, we need to create the new elixir of our labor force, find our next comparative advantage.  The opportunity, the sugar, is out there (we have a lot to offer!), and the potential is too sweet to waste.
(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

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