Jobs in Jeopardy

THE study of economics is often about crunching on numbers and spitting out percentages, ratios, and bottom lines.

But as the Monitor's four-part series ``Jobs in Jeopardy'' (concluding on Page 8 today) points out, any discussion of jobs means talking about real people and their very real lives. The loss of a job has a wide ripple effect: not only on the worker but on her or his spouse, on children and other dependents, even on the morale and working conditions of coworkers who remain behind.

Corporate ``downsizing'' has become so popular, so de rigueur that even companies with healthy financial statements seem unable to resist. If the company is getting good results now, the theory goes, just wait until a little of the excess-employee ``fat'' is melted away and the corporate body becomes lean, slim, and totally fit. Here numbers give a sense of the huge size of the trend: Some 700 companies discharged 516,000 workers last year. One in 4 employers plans to shrink its headcount by June this year.

But companies can easily go too far, too fast. Badly done, downsizing hurts the morale and productivity of the workers left behind, damaging long-term growth, market position, and profitability. Sometimes, companies realize too late that they have cut too deep, such as when General Motors hired 2,000 new engineers to replace those only recently laid off.

For families, each layoff is an individual drama, a story with no formulaic ending. A vital first step for each laid-off worker is to recognize that she or he has immense reserves of courage, intelligence, and initiative on which to draw. The series points out that many people find comfort and strength in their religious convictions, which assure them that their worth, identity, and self-esteem are undiminished in the eyes of God.

With United States unemployment at less than 6 percent, workers with marketable skills who search persistently should find new employment, though possibly at lower wages. The unskilled poor face a tougher task: gaining education and training. Without them, a ``career'' of bouncing around in a series of low-skill, low-pay jobs may lie ahead.

The employment paradigm has been workers exchanging loyalty to the company for job security. The new model is workers ``loaning'' their talents and efforts to employers in exchange for pay and opportunities to build skills and gain experience to increase their value in the marketplace.

In an economy in which change is the only constant on the horizon, workers must understand this new paradigm and make it work for them.

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