Higher Profits Aren't Slowing Pink Slips

Technology makes many jobs obsolete; corporations want leaner staffing

FOR American workers who lost their jobs during the last recession there's been little respite from bad news. First, the long-awaited recovery produced relatively few fulltime jobs with benefits and even less of a feeling of job security.

Now with a new recession looming, workers' prospects of landing the stable kind of employment their parents once had may seem even more remote.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich concedes that while the economy has generated some 6.3 million jobs since President Clinton has been in office, joblessness still stands high (at 5.7 percent in May) while underemployment - working less than desired - is an acute problem.

Despite soaring productivity gains and rising business profits - developments many economists had expected would translate into abundant job opportunities - American corporations continue to lay off workers by the thousands. Many new hires by business are made on a contingency basis.

On Friday, the Labor Department announced that May's business payrolls plunged to their lowest levels in four years. While Mobile, Xerox, K-mart, the nation's biggest banks, computer companies, and manufacturers continue to eliminate positions, growth in temporary work remains strong, Labor Department data indicate.

Lean labor force

Driving this trend are both technological advancements that phase out workers and efforts to boost output with the leanest possible labor force - forces that are spreading through every industrial sector.

Despite an 11 percent rise in corporate profits that followed a 13 percent gain in 1993, major announced layoffs by US firms amounted to 500,000 jobs in 1994 compared with the 300,000 cuts in 1993. Chicago-based Sears Roebuck typifies the trend: Posting a 14 percent hike in its 1993 profits, management sent out 50,000 pink slips that year.

The current economic slowdown - lagging home and auto sales, falling factory output, weak exports, and a drop in disposable income - portends tougher times ahead for workers. On Friday, the government announced its index of leading indicators fell for the third month in a row, a pattern that is often taken as a signal of impending recession. Leading economists predict the second quarter will at least halve the first quarter's 2.7 economic growth rate. Such a slowdown may prompt employers to further pare payrolls or reconsider hiring plans.

A survey conducted by the Wisconsin-based Manpower Inc., the nation's largest placement service for temporary employment, shows robust demand for these workers over the next three months. Some 85 percent of Manpower's placements are in secretarial and assembly jobs - the low end of the service and manufacturing industries, according to Manpower spokeswoman Sharon Canter.

Indeed, business success is increasingly measured by just how spartan the staff. US workers, who are breathing a sigh of relief because they have been spared, may see more layoffs ahead. American business is just beginning to make technological advances and already "the dislocations are enormous," says economist Jeremy Rifkin, author of a controversial new book "The End of Work."

But, adds Mr. Rifkin: "In the end the system eats itself," because the constant dumping of workers into the unemployment lines or into temporary work erodes their purchasing power and reduces the size of pension funds that collectively help the economy grow.

Forecasters worry about the delayed impact of the Federal Reserve's tightened monetary policy - since February last year, the Fed raised interest rate hikes within 12 months engineered to bring what the fast-growing, inflationary-bound economy to a "soft landing." The Fed's policymaking body will meet again in early July.

Consumers are also getting edgy, according to separate consumer confidence indices published by the University of Michigan and New York's Conference Board. Consumer spending makes up two-thirds of the economy and is an important factor in growth and the employment picture.

But even a jump in confidence would not be nearly enough to absorb producers' overstocked inventories, say analysts at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute in New York.

"Judging by earnings projections, Wall Street is underestimating the intensity of the slowdown," the analysts say, adding that firms will be more vigilant in "rein[ing] in orders, output, employment and investments in new capacity."

'Bumpy landing'

To Sung Won Sohn, chief economist of Norwest Corporation in Minneapolis, "the best we can hope for now is a bumpy landing."

Meanwhile, Washington's political debate rages over just how to confront the jobs issue. The White House wants to increase the minimum wage, boost job training, extend more federal loans for college and build on its school-to-work program.

But critics charge the administration with piling on more onerous employers' costs that will only further thwart job creation. GOP lawmakers are now trying to push through tax cuts and deregulation, which they say will provide the necessary stimulus for more jobs.

Government regulation has forced the surge in temporary work, asserts Labor economist Richard Vedder.

"Employers hire temps as a way to get around the regulations and avoid costs," he says. "They'd also rather pay one worker time and a half than pay to train a new worker and give him expensive benefits."

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