Jobs: We need long-term solutions tooOctober 4, 2011: 5:00 AM ET
The U.S. unemployment crisis is urgent, but there's no quick fix for what's wrong with it.
By Becky Quick, contributor
FORTUNE -- Now that President Obama has unveiled his jobs bill, the critics are busy picking apart the details. But it's the details that aren't included in the plan that have those in the know most concerned. If passed by Congress (and that's a big if), the plan may offer some short-term relief to working Americans and some new jobs in the immediate future. But it doesn't address the structural problems facing our nation's job market -- issues like regulation, job training, and education.
Just ask someone like Matt Rose, the CEO of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. He is one of those job creators whom both political parties purport to care so much about. Burlington Northern employs 40,000 Americans, and Rose even sits on the President's own Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, the working group Obama created earlier this year to advise him on the best ways to get Americans back to work. "What I keep thinking is we need is some longer-term solutions, and that's really tough in the political environment we are in right now," Rose tells me. "I'm disappointed in the outcome."
Rose says both political parties seem to be talking past each other at this point instead of addressing a bunch of issues hindering job creation: "Regulation, taxation, energy policy ... we need to take each one of these and provide more certainty, and look at everything through the lens of jobs."
Regulatory overload is a frequent complaint of business leaders. And while it may be an overused excuse, the business leaders have plenty of legitimate points. The big bills passed recently -- from Dodd-Frank regulations governing the financial sector to the President's health care plan -- all hamper their ability to forecast future costs, and that in turn can keep them from making commitments to bring on additional workers. Rose recommends putting all new regulations on hiatus until Congress determines the employment impact of additional rules. And he'd put a "shot clock" on regulatory agencies when it comes to issuing permits for projects. Some regulatory reviews, he says, can slow down projects by seven to 10 years. "Not that we have to be like China and issue a permit for something in an hour, but we can't allow any extremist to use any law to prevent projects from going ahead," Rose says.
China's aggressiveness is just one of the reasons many of the high-paying, low-skilled manufacturing jobs have fled the U.S. for good. Meanwhile high-tech American jobs go unfilled. Michael Dell says the employment issue in America is more of a skills gap than a jobs gap. Dell's eponymous company (DELL) plans to hire several thousand people in the U.S. this year, but it won't be easy. "If we set up a new site to hire 100 software or storage or networking engineers, we have to go find them one at a time and seek them out and convince them and cajole them to come work for us," Dell says. "If we set up a warehouse or distribution center and we have 100 jobs there, we will have a line of 10,000 people waiting outside to try to get those jobs."
There's a relatively easy short-term fix for that: Just allow more foreign citizens into the country to fill those high-skill jobs. But the longer-term fix has to be a more homegrown one: Get more of our students interested in math, science, and engineering. Former President Bill Clinton recently cited on Squawk a startling McKinsey study that predicts that in a few years America will be 1.5 million college graduates short in the highly skilled areas where job demand is growing. "We can't afford to lose those high-technology jobs to other countries," Clinton says. He's absolutely right, and it's about time we start dedicating more than just lip service to tackling the problem.
With the unemployment rate stubbornly hovering at 9%, that's a crisis Rose and the rest of the Jobs Council recognize keenly. "Behind closed doors, so many companies say, I can't fill the types of jobs I need here in the U.S. because I can't find a qualified workforce," says Rose. "That's the scariest one to me."
It scares me too. Let's hope it's just as frightening to those in Congress and the White House.
--Becky Quick is an anchor on CNBC's Squawk Box.
This article is from the October 17, 2011 issue of Fortune.