Q&A: Getting America back to work

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 23, 2011 - 9:50 AM

In a report, General Mills vice president Michael Davis and hundreds of HR execs say government, education and firms need to jointly tackle job creation.

ELIZABETH FLORES � eflores@startribune.com May 18, 2011 - Golden Valley, MN - Mike Davis, senior vice president, Global Human Resources with responsibility for all human resource functions at General Mills.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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WASHINGTON - For 18 months, 325 heads of human resources at some of the country's largest companies pooled their ideas on job creation for America. The project rendered a Blueprint for Jobs in the 21st Century that seeks to remedy what one of its authors called the "enormous disconnect" between D.C.'s political rhetoric and the reality of those who hire this country's workforce.

The plan produced by the HR Policy Association includes some provocative ideas: rewriting the Fair Labor Standards Act, granting near-automatic work visas for foreigners trained in critical technical skills at American universities, implementing comprehensive health care reform, and establishing a government entity to coordinate and increase government spending on job growth.

Michael Davis, senior vice president of human resources for Minnesota-based General Mills, coordinated this collective, national effort. Davis explained the reasoning recently as he and other executives gathered to lay out their plan for getting Americans back to work.

QWhat does the public need to understand about job creation at this point in American history?

AOne of our central tenets is that we're competing with the world right now, and a lot of the world is pooling together governments, education and companies to create jobs, create industries. In America, we're not. We really need to come together and tackle job creation. It's almost a matter of national security.

QIn a free-market economy based on competition, why is that kind of cooperation not anathema to the way we usually do business?

AAs recently as 50 years ago, national borders halted the natural order of trade. Today, it's a global marketplace. Technology is playing an unbelievable role in flattening the world. Our view is that we need to rally together to take the next step.

QWhat are two or three of the most important policies that need to be put in place or that need to change?

AThink about your BlackBerry. For a lot of people, checking their BlackBerry is the first thing they do when they wake up and the last thing they do before they go to bed. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which was written in the 1930s, dictates how work is done for a major sector of our society. The act could not begin to contemplate the technology we have in place today. The Fair Labor Standards Act is just out of date. The second thing is: We need some [connection] in government that is deeply worried and caring about job growth.

QNo one in Washington is talking about investing these days. All they talk about is cutting spending. Does there need to be a wake-up call?

AWe have 325 heads of human resources at the biggest companies in America. We're the people in companies who actually do the hiring. We're the people closest to job creation in American industry. Our view is that this is a place where we need to put more time, money and effort. Getting Americans back to work is just crucial. The statistics of unemployment are staggering.

QAre you optimistic? If we just continue as we're going, what will happen?

AWe need to change the way we're thinking about jobs in America. I don't think the status quo is acceptable. Our hat's in the ring. We're willing to work with anyone who wants to seriously talk about and move on job creation.

QWhat reaction do you expect to the blueprint?

AI'm hoping that common sense takes hold on a few of these issues and change happens.

QDo the American people realize that something has to change?

AAmerican companies hire skills; they hire expertise. The really important thing we need to do is better communicate to young men and women when they are at a very [formative] age what kinds of things you can do and have jobs doing them. Everybody rallies quickly to going to college. While there are a lot of disciplines you can do by going to college, there are a lot of disciplines you can do without going to college. The key is building up a skill set, building up an expertise. We don't talk about that. You don't see ads on television about it. You don't see people in middle schools talking about careers ....

[At General Mills] our hardest job to fill is trained welders. But a trained master welder is a very good-paying, very secure job. The three jobs in shortest supply [in America] are trained craftsmen, sales [people] and engineers. In a country where unemployment is so high, these are three areas of great-paying jobs. We've got a skills mismatch.

QWhat role does General Mills have in this broader, national discussion?

AThis is a national issue. It is a national problem. I think we need all hands on deck to fix this .... We need to make this of the utmost urgency. So everyone, General Mills included, is responsible. Every corporate citizen has a job to play in getting this front and center and moving it forward.

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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