With the US economy finally beginning to emerge from recession, it is vital that the nation's elected leaders not overlook what still remains a major challenge: taking steps to reduce structural unemployment, now pegged at roughly 6.5 percent of the total unemployment rate of 10.1 percent.
Structural unemployment involves workers displaced from positions because of underlying changes in the profile of American industry. One key example: the shrinking size of Detroit's automobile work force, stemming from increased competition from overseas producers as well as the use of robotics and other technical changes in car production.
The structural employment issue came to the fore this past weekend. Leaders of big corporations attending the annual gathering of the Business Council in Hot Springs, Va., said that their firms would be rehiring few of the workers laid off during the recession, no matter how well the economy improves in the weeks and months ahead. Also over the weekend, the leaders of some 16 major universities and corporations urged President Reagan to come up with a national program enabling the US to compete more effectively in the international marketplace. Two key elements of the plan put forth by the latter group - the Business-Higher Education Forum - included federal loans for graduate engineering students and a new program modeled after the GI Bill of the 1940s and '50s designed to retrain displaced workers.
Mr. Reagan should give serious consideration to crafting such a program. It might be noted that the forum, which will meet with the President later this month, is comprised of some of the most respected figures in US business and academic circles, including Robert Anderson, chairman of Rockwell International; David Saxon, president of the University of California; Derek Bok, president of Harvard; and Philip Caldwell, president of Ford Motor Company.
There is no reason why government and industry should not work together on a program designed to overcome structural unemployment. Industry has already shown itself highly flexible regarding the changing nature of the work force by absorbing vast numbers of women and young people since World War II. A national program to help displaced workers would be right morally, right politically - and right in furthering a sound and productive economy.