Leading Article: A summit to get America working

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Clinton's 'jobs summit', which opens today in Detroit, is a welcome sign that fatalism about Western unemployment is at last being challenged. For years there have been too many excuses for a do-nothing approach to chronic joblessness: fear of fuelling inflation, world recession and the ineffectiveness of government schemes. The unemployed themselves have ended up carrying the blame: if only they would stop overpricing themselves, they would soon, it is said, be back in work.

Time has exposed the inadequacy and complacency of this analysis. True, deregulation and more flexible labour practices have created jobs in Britain, particularly for women. But whole groups of people - notably unskilled men - have been left without work. Meanwhile, governments everywhere have grown increasingly aware of the damage caused by unemployment: poverty, crime, ill-health, social fragmentation, strain on welfare budgets and lost economic growth. With inflation now under control worldwide, policy-makers have started thinking seriously about cutting the dole queues.

The theme in Detroit will be training. Rapid technological development, fickle consumers and the vagaries of international competition mean that few people can expect a job for life, so they have to keep pace with fast-changing demands. As the Demos think-tank points out in a paper published today: 'If security no longer comes from being employed, it must come from being employable.'

The current failure to achieve this goal is all too evident. Too many British school-leavers are innumerate and illiterate. The long- term unemployed have become the human equivalent of derelict industrial wastelands, assumed to have no potential for wealth production. A society cannot accept the misery that results. Nor should it pay indefinitely for the subsistence lifestyles that these people are forced to adopt. The Americans - despite their harsher attitude to welfare payments and greater success in job creation - have recognised, by hosting today's summit, that the state must help to train people for the tasks required by sophisticated, developed economies.

No one knows the best way forward, so reformers should be humble. But there are plenty of useful ideas that deserve to be tried. The tax system's bias could be shifted away from property towards training. Further incentives to acquire qualifications would encourage a general expansion of employability. Employment taxes could, in addition, be cut. Funding could be diverted towards nursery and continuous education. Trade unions might revive their tradition of self-improvement and help members to educate themselves for new roles.

The result of these approaches would be a more versatile, flexible workforce. This would be a far greater achievement for the state than the array of welfare supports that currently, too poorly, sustain the demoralised unemployed.