Jobs for All: The Key to Rebuilding after Katrina

It’s all about jobs. That should be the mantra and clear focus guiding efforts to rebuild the lives and restore the hopes of the families devastated by Katrina. All of us, leaders and citizens alike, need to stop bickering over who was at fault in the preparations and initial response and put forward a united effort to rebuild the lives, communities and economy of those affected. The key principle should be to give all adults able and willing to work access to training and a guaranteed job in the clean-up and rebuilding process. By doing so we will give them a stake in their future and the skills and opportunities they need to rebuild their lives for the long run.

Let’s face reality. Hundreds of thousands of family bread winners are out of work. Many of these have skills and are ready and eager to get back to work in some productive way. A good number, however, lack basic skills or have never worked in anything but the underground economy or illegal activities. If we don’t give all those willing and able to work a job in the clean-up and rebuilding process they will be a cost burden on society not just now but for the rest of their broken lives. And because we know poverty cycles through generations, we can be assured that their children will be left behind and suffer the same fate as their parents.

How can we do this? The first step is for national leaders to recognize that government cannot meet this challenge alone. Congress and the president should create an Emergency Economic and Social Reconstruction Fund with incentives for private sector firms to match this investment and commit to work together with labor and community groups to apply the private sector’s best practices in job training, employment and labor relations, health care, and family social service delivery.

Why does labor need to be a partner in this process? Thousands of people will need to be trained and engaged in reconstructing their homes and community infrastructures, as well as their lives. And they need a voice in the process of rebuilding their lives. Labor has the know-how and institutional infrastructure needed to provide training and job development services from the ground up. Construction unions have apprenticeship programs. Many other unions, like the Communications Workers of America and its business partners, have world class jointly funded and administered education and training programs. All of these need to be opened up and expanded to mentor those who have little or no job experience and give them the skills they will need to continue to be productive contributors to the economy after the rebuilding process is completed.

Why community and other non-profit groups? No modern training and jobs program can ignore the need for family health, child care, and related educational services. But we also have proven models for how to deliver these services to needy populations efficiently and effectively. My wife works as a nurse practitioner for an innovative integrated insurance and health care delivery non-profit organization that is paid a flat fee from Medicaid to go out into the communities and homes to meet all the health care needs of the population they serve—poor patients with chronic diseases like HIV/AIDS and others. Kaiser Permanente provides another integrated health care model, one supported by a well-functioning labor-management partnership, that could be used to provide the full array of insurance, preventive, out-patient, and hospital care these families need. The alternative is long lines at emergency rooms triaging patients who should have had ongoing health care in their temporary or even permanent homes and communities.

We have already seen universities around the country offer temporary placements to college students displaced by Katrina. This best practice example needs to be extended to children of all ages, right down to the infants and toddlers who need access to early childhood development and counseling to both overcome their immediate trauma and to start them on a path to succeeding in school so that they too can eventually become productive members of the labor force of the future. Early childhood and after-school care will be needed for all children whose parent(s) are willing and able to work or get trained for the rebuilding process.

By working together and applying these best practices, we will not only restore hope and trust in the American dream for Katrina’s victims. We might also learn that there are better ways to work together in the crises and in the normal times that lie ahead.

Thomas A. Kochan is the George M. Bunker Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and co-director of the MIT Workplace Center. He is author of Restoring the American Dream: A Working Families Agenda for America.

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