PRESIDENT Clinton firmly defends his $16.2 billion federal jobs package as the first step toward his goal of creating 8 million jobs over his four-year term. And much is riding on the president's ability to make good on this pledge. Providing more and better jobs - high-wage, high-technology jobs - was the centerpiece of his campaign.
But critics advise against expending more government resources for training and make-work programs that will yield only marginal changes in the job market. Instead of funding short-lived infrastructure projects and summer youth programs, they say, Mr. Clinton should enhance private-sector development and hiring over the long term.
While Labor Secretary Robert Reich asserts that providing America's work force with technical skills is the best strategy to combat the deteriorating effects of corporate downsizing, defense cuts, and foreign competition, business leaders caution that before people are honed by costly government- and private-sector-funded training, jobs must be available.
Bear Stearns chief economist Lawrence Kudlow echoes comments from Wall Street financiers to small-town entrepreneurs: The primary United States economic issue this decade "is not infrastructure or job training - it is the need for capital supplies and capital formation."
Given White House plans for deep military cuts, government streamlining that will eliminate at least 500,000 jobs combined, and tax hikes that could dampen consumption and business growth, many analysts are still deciding whether to put the Clinton administration's economic strategy in the asset or the liability column.
Labor economist and Ohio University Prof. Richard Vedder says his research on government and unemployment in the 20th century shows a weak link between public spending and economic growth. If the stimulus can generate 500,000 jobs, he says, it will shave only 1 percent off of the 7 percent unemployment rate.
Republican lawmakers have already done their figuring. They say a jobs package will exacerbate the deficit and is unnecessary when payroll jobs rose last month at their fastest pace in four years.
Despite the news that the country's output of goods and services is more robust and joblessness may be edging down, big employers continue to announce massive layoffs, however. US corporations, loaded down by debt racked up in the 1980s, are trimming operations. Many companies, including auto manufacturers, computer giants, and aerospace engineers, have dramatically and permanently slashed high-wage, high-skill jobs.
Asking companies to retool their workers may be unrealistic, given trimming trends. Less than one-fifth of workers who were laid off during the recession can expect to resume their old positions, according to government studies.
High-tech, moreover, does not mean greater job opportunities. Productivity gains, which have been marked since the recession, ultimately contribute to the well-being of the nation's economy. As the almost 3 percent increase in 1992's manufacturing output demonstrates, however, that productivity has come at the expense of job creation. Employers are paring down payrolls, or maintaining current levels, while handling greater workloads.
ACCORDING to the US Business and Industrial Council and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, smaller firms, which have made the greatest contribution to the nation's job supply in recent years, are searching for ways to increase their output without incurring greater costs. The net result is that fewer full-time employees are hired. To avoid such costly government mandates as family leave and probable requirements such as health-care coverage, small business is taking on more part-timers, c onsultants, and contractors.
Perhaps the most-remote prospect for high-skill job creation is the summer youth jobs program. Targeting the "100 poorest [urban] areas" of the country, Clinton intends to pour $1 billion in federal funds into job-training programs for inner-city youths.
Los Angeles, seen as the most needy case, is slated to receive some $50 million this year. "That's twice as much as we've ever gotten before," says the city's deputy mayor, Mark Fabiani.
While he has tried to engage the private sector in Los Angeles' post-riot renewal, Mr. Fabiani concedes that this summer youth program will "wind up with government jobs that are not very meaningful." Most of the youths will clean off graffiti, pick up trash, and do community tasks.
While these programs do give participants a stake in cleaning up their environment, critics say, the youths are still far from becoming grounded in the working world.