To Avoid the Next Economic Crisis, It’s Time to Pay Attention to Workers

The unemployment figures were released last Friday and the conversation about them focused on all the great news they contained. The economy added 223,000 jobs in May while unemployment dropped to 3.8 percent. There was even modestly good news on wages.

Since all Trump can talk about when it comes to the economy is jobs, jobs, jobs, both he and his enablers saw only good news.

Neil Irwin at the New York Times literally went to the thesaurus to look up new words for “good” to describe the economy.

So in an era of geopolitical risks and potential trade wars, the thing to take away from the May numbers is that the United States economy just keeps humming along at a steady pace, putting more people to work and at gradually higher wages.

It isn’t perfect — wage growth remains unexceptional despite its growth spurt in May, and the ratio of prime-age adults working remains below its historical levels.

But it has been a strikingly durable and steady expansion, which is what the nation needed after the scars of the 2008 recession. And that’s just plain “good.”

But whether it is Trump trying to take credit for low unemployment or pundits trying to come up with words for how great the economy is doing, they are all missing the crisis that is already hitting some areas of the country and could be coming soon to a state near you. Here is how they’re talking about things out here in the so-called “heartland” of Minnesota:

There is a critical shortage of skilled workers in the Twin Cities region, according to Achieve Mpls…By 2020, the region will see a shortfall of more than 60,000 workers, according to Achieve Mpls, and over the next decade there will be about 500,000 jobs waiting to be filled.

Think for a moment about what a shortage of 500,000 workers will do in a state whose population is only 5.3 million. On the plus side, that should lead to higher wages. But if the supply of workers dries up, that will definitely put the economy in crisis.

At this point, there are a host of policies that a forward-looking government would be exploring to deal with this impending crisis, almost none of which is on the table with Republicans in charge of congress and Trump in the White House. First and foremost, we should be looking at ways to expand immigration and provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Raising the minimum wage would further boost paychecks, bringing any so-called “discouraged” workers back into the labor pool. Matching education and training to the jobs that are available should also be a priority, as well as ensuring that discrimination based on race, gender and age is not an impediment to education or a job. Finally, ensuring a healthy workforce via access to affordable health care is a must.

Following the Great Recession, there was a need for an emphasis on jobs. If we haven’t already reached the end of that road, we’re coming close. Our economy could be in trouble very soon if we don’t start paying attention to wages and workers. As baby boomers continue to retire, demographics alone are going to be a problem. But the policies of our current government are only making things worse.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .