Opinion

Reihan Salam

How to get Americans back to work

Reihan Salam
Apr 4, 2014 18:38 UTC

Friday’s Labor Department data shows an uptick in jobs, but an unemployment rate that remained steady from February to March. While the size of the labor force is increasing, the economy is not strong enough to get all would-be workers off the sidelines and into jobs.

Part of the story is that the fates of the short-term unemployed and the long-term unemployed have sharply diverged. The short-term unemployment rate, as Annie Lowrey of the New York Times has observed, is lower than its pre-recession level, while the long-term unemployment rate remains very high.

We need to find better ways to help the 3.7 million American workers who’ve been out of a job for six months, and the twice-as-large number of workers who are working part-time although they’d prefer full-time employment. But we would do also do a great deal of good by ensuring that the short-term unemployed don’t remain on the sidelines for long.

That is why America needs wage insurance — a form of insurance that would subsidize a worker’s income if she were forced to take a job with a lower salary. The goal of wage insurance is to encourage workers to broaden their job search and to subsidize on-the-job training as they move from one kind of employment to another. A woman who worked in construction for most of her adult life might have a hard time transitioning to the hospitality industry, for example, and starting from scratch in an entry-level job would mean accepting a low wage. Wage insurance would cushion her and her family against this drop in income, and it would give her an opportunity to raise her skill level so that she could eventually command a higher wage from her employer.

Wage insurance was first introduced in 2005, by policy scholars Lael Brainard, Robert Litan and Nicholas Warren. The goal of the program was not to shield workers from all risk, but rather to provide them with a strong incentive for rapid re-employment. Workers who lose their jobs and then find jobs that pay less would receive an insurance payout that would cover up to 50 percent of the earnings gap, up to $10,000 a year for no more than two years.

How computerized work affects immigration

Reihan Salam
Jul 19, 2013 14:53 UTC

In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. One hundred years later, that share had declined to 1.9 percent. Over that interval, the jobs that were easy and cheap to mechanize were mechanized, and now we are left with a handful of jobs that machines find extremely difficult to do. Machines can’t make strategic decisions about which crops to grow, and as a general rule they can’t fix themselves, so that leaves a significant role for managers and mechanics. Until recently, machines were also really bad at doing things like picking heads of lettuce and other delicate crops, as this requires a deftness of hand and an attention to detail that machines lack.

This is why the agricultural sector continues to have an appetite for less-skilled labor, which has been a huge driver of the recent comprehensive immigration reform effort. The idea is that because native-born Americans will never pick cucumbers — or at least because they will never pick cucumbers at a wage that would make for affordable cucumbers — we need a steady supply of less-skilled, low-wage workers to keep farms that grow cucumbers and lettuce and other delicate crops viable.

Now, however, a number of innovative firms have developed machines that use sophisticated sensors and an enormous amount of raw computing power to do jobs that had once been beyond the reach of machines. The reporters Gosia Wozniacka and Terence Chea recently described a Lettuce Bot that can “thin” a lettuce field in the time it would take twenty workers to do the same. Though the Lettuce Bot and machines like it remain expensive, there is every reason to believe that prices will fall. These picking machines are not quite good enough to pick fresh-market fruit, but they’re getting there. The reason these machines are being developed is the same reason agribusiness interests have been agitating for a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration: the supply of workers willing to work the fields is not big enough to keep wages extremely low, and so farms have been desperate for low-cost alternatives.

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