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In this Aug. 23, 2011 photo, Dedric Stafford, 18, fills out an application with Coca-Cola at a jobs fair in Miami.

Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

What employers need in a competitive world

  • Article by: FRED ZIMMERMAN
  • September 6, 2011 - 8:36 PM

As we anxiously watch the world's vacillating financial markets and disappointing economic and employment statistics, we cannot help wondering when our weakened economy will recover.

Some people say that public policies of one sentiment or another are to blame or are the salvation for our economic situation, depending upon who is talking.

Perhaps, instead of focusing on the virtues or offenses of the right or the left, we need to employ a more orthogonal perspective. What about our personal policies?

In my frequent visits with employers and factory employees, I have stumbled over an obvious fact. Good employees are much preferred by employers.

They come to work, work responsibly, help one an other and their companies, and generally refrain from unsavory personal attributes. It should not be surprising that employers seek these characteristics -- wherever they can be found.

Formal education can be a desired trait but is often not crucial to what makes a desired employee. Personal traits are crucial.

The recent trend of hiring temporary workers is evidence that employers are less willing to make the large commitment to hiring a permanent employee without an initial experience.

It is not surprising. Baseball teams operate the same way.

Citizens of both Western Europe and the United States should be alarmed by a recent Economist article that described the rapid emergence of the developing countries.

These emerging countries now consume 55 percent of the world's oil and 75 percent of its copper, and account for more than half of world car sales.

They also provide most of the exports, enjoy only half of the per capita debt of the developed nations and control 81 percent of all currency reserves. Clearly, there is a lot of competition out there, and employers have to be careful about who they hire.

It could be argued that the United States and its people have gradually let slip away many of the favorable attributes that have created prosperous employment in the past. We study less, and this laxity is evident in comparable test scores.

In our robust pursuit of formal credentials, we may have glossed over the need for the practical work skills so desired by employers. Perhaps some of us are too indulgent -- in food or drink or other substances. Is the entertainment of today preparing us for meaningful positions?

The variance is huge, of course, because our nation still has many highly dedicated and capable people. It is also true that many such people have been adversely affected by a weakened economic system. But that is not everyone.

Our nation is blessed with some fine companies, but some employers may also wish to examine their own policies.

Companies might consider avoiding inappropriate compensation; the arbitrary exporting of production and research facilities, underinvestment in activities necessary to retaining a competitive edge; foolish, overpriced acquisitions, and contestable financial transactions.

The curtailment of these dysfunctional activities would also help employment.

The public sector might contribute by critiquing policies on retirement ages, productivity, innovation and rightsizing.

My expectation is that the most dedicated public employees would champion these appraisals.

In a recent publication titled "Labor Markets and Monetary Policy," the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Narayana Kocherlakota, raises the question of whether currently high rates of unemployment are due to insufficient demand (where monetary policy might be effective) or to other factors such as declining productivity or income alternatives to working.

The author points out that monetary policy involving low interest rates and available money can help stimulate demand to some degree, but such tools may not be appropriate if the underlying causes of unemployment are structural -- a useful observation.

With these questions in mind, we can wonder if today's high unemployment can be influenced by stimulus, or by quantitative easing, or lower taxes, or higher spending, or any other public policy.

We may have to deal with the reality that with our high costs, expensive health care, feeble education and marginal work and personal habits, the American worker may not be as valuable in the world marketplace.

We are all in this together, and it will be in our long-term best interest for each of us to ensure that our personal policies involving diligence, dedication, sacrifice and moral conduct are consistent with the kind of a country we would all like to enjoy.

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Fred Zimmerman is professor emeritus of engineering and management at the University of St. Thomas. He spent many years in industry before entering academia and has served on the boards of directors of several corporations.

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