Dispatch from Davos III: Tackling Unemployment

This week, Ketchum President Rob Flaherty is attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum — which brings together 2,500 CEOs and government leaders in Davos, Switzerland — and is reporting his observations. On Jan. 31, he will host a special webinar open to the public, “Davos 2011: An Insider’s Guide to Key Insights,” in which he will recap his experiences.
Unemployment is so pervasive that I’m sure you, like me, know several people who have been or are still out of work during this recession.

Recognizing this, the World Economic Forum and CNBC convened a televised debate hosted by Maria Bartiromo to hear solutions to “The Future of Employment.”

From a political perspective, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post said in the session (and even more emphatically in a conversation afterward) that a “sense of urgency is missing. We brought urgency to saving the financial system. We need the same urgency on jobs. Our dysfunctional political system is bringing sub-optimal solutions.”

An audience member suggested we need to distinguish between unemployment and “unemployability” — the inability to find work because of obsolete skills. It was suggested that governments that are spending so much on unemployment benefits should spend some of that on simultaneous training so that those people have the skills to transition to another job or career.

Laura D’Andrea Tyson from UC Berkeley and formerly from the Clinton administration, described the “polarization of jobs.” She continued, “There has been a loss of jobs in manufacturing. There are growing wages and opportunities at the top, but the middle has been made redundant by technology, among other factors.” Education was cited by many as the critical factor to address unemployment, and Tyson called for governments to make college education mandatory in the same way they’ve made high school mandatory.

U.S. college statistics cited at the session underscore part of the problem. Only 67% of college students graduate within six years, and they graduate sharing what is now $900 billion in student loans — a higher total than all credit card departments.

Jeffrey Joerres, CEO of Manpower, the employment services firm, agreed, saying, “If we don’t fix education, we will not be able to fill the right jobs with the right people.”