Attention to Jobs

IF President Clinton needed any justification for refocusing on the economy - his primary point of reference during the election campaign - he need only consider the job layoffs and plant closings announced in recent days.

The layoffs occurred in many of the largest "blue chip" companies in the United States - and virtually all economic sectors: Sears, Roebuck (retailing); International Business Machines (computers); Eastman Kodak (photography); Boeing, United Technologies, and McDonnell Douglas (aerospace and defense). The layoffs were substantial. In aerospace alone, more than 39,000 jobs were cut, affecting enough workers to populate a small city.

Unfortunately, the latest round of layoffs and plant closings is not expected to be the last. In the defense sector, for example, more than 1 million jobs are expected to be terminated during the next few years, a result in part of leaner defense budgets. In retailing, a number of chains are expected to close marginal stores, many of them in or near older industrial cities.

The restructuring of industry that is now occurring is not just a phenomenon found in the US, but throughout the world. Many of the plant closings are the result of hardships stemming from the recent global recession. But many closings are unrelated to day-to-day economic gyrations. Given advances in computers, electronics, and manufacturing processes, companies find that they can do better with less - especially by trimming middle levels of management.

In many industries, moreover, the main competition is not from a company down the block but across the ocean. The internationalization that marked the world auto industry in the 1970s and '80s - and consumer electronics before that - is now reshaping scores of industries, from computer to aerospace.

Corporate restructuring carries enormous challenges to individuals and local communities; but it also brings the possibility of greater efficiencies, higher productivity, and lower-cost goods and services. Still, it would be remiss to ignore the hardships faced by individual workers. The administration is correct in considering a limited jobs program to rebuild the infrastructure - now being discussed in the $20 billion range; job training and retraining will surely be necessary for many workers.

A final thought: Most Americans work for small-to-medium- sized companies. That's where job growth occurs. Mr. Clinton should take firm steps to address the concerns of small businesses, including weeding out unnecessary federal regulations, prodding banks and government agencies into providing necessary loans, and aiding smaller firms in selling their products abroad.

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