Scaling the Jobs Summit

PRESIDENT Clinton meets with labor, economic, and finance ministers from six other top industrial nations today in Detroit to focus on one of the most troubling aspects of the global economy: slow or nonexistent job creation in many of the world's most economically important countries.

The meeting's main goal is to begin devising job-creation plans to present at the Group of Seven meeting this coming July. The ministers have their work cut out for them. In Europe, the unemployment rate for the European Union as a whole is expected to hit 12 percent of the work force by year's end; in the United States, where unemployment eased last month to 6.5 percent, job growth still lags levels typical for this period in a recovery. In Japan, although unemployment runs at only 2.5 percent, recession is chipping away at the tradition of lifetime employment.

The participants have an unenviable array of factors to juggle. The solution isn't as simple as coming up with a broad government-spending program, as some labor unions advocate. Central banks, some of them independent players with control over a country's money supply, play a vital role in economic performance, as do trade and fiscal policy. Such structural factors as government-mandated social-welfare benefits and labor laws affect hiring and layoff decisions. Improvements in productivity, widely regarded as healthy for an economy, nevertheless reduce companies' demand for labor and have led to high levels of self-employment, part-time employment, and underemployment. Such improvements, often technology-driven, can reduce the prospects for poorly educated, low-skilled workers, who were able to find relatively high-paying, secure jobs in the more labor-intensive factories of the 1950s and '60s. Job security is growing more dependent on what a worker knows than on whose timecard that worker punches.

Faced with such a complex mix, it comes as little surprise that the White House has been trying to lower expectations for this meeting. But given the vital role jobs play in shaping an individual's sense of self-worth and a society's economic, political, and social stability - witness the rise of anti-foreigner sentiment in Germany and France, as well as a strong anti-immigration streak in the US, for example - the meeting could hardly be more timely. With economic interdependence increasing among nations, the meeting's theme needs more consistent attention at an international level.

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