Rebuilding a Better Economy

In last weekend's YouTube talk to the nation, President Obama addressed the nation's growing concern over the continuing loss of jobs even as the economy shows signs of stabilizing. Providing new job opportunities and the skills required to get them for working class youth will be a key test of the Obama administration's desire  "to build a firmer, stronger foundation for growth that not only will withstand future economic storms but help us thrive and compete in a global economy." On July 14/15, 2009  Millennials from across the country are coming to  Washington, DC to participate  in the "80 Million Strong for Young American Jobs" summit, to develop collective solutions and federal legislation "aimed at putting young people to work and launching our economy in a new direction." In response, the President is focusing on two initiatives, both of which have been a key part of NDN's policy recommendations over the last two years, to achieve the group's goals.  

On the Monday after his weekly address to the nation,  the President's Council of Economic Advisors released a report outlining the importance of community colleges in making America's workforce more competitive in the global economy. "We believe it's time to reform our community colleges so that they provide Americans of all ages a chance to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future." Echoing ideas first proposed by NDN fellow Robert Shapiro in 2007 that have been incorporated in House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson's bill,  The Community College Technology Access Act of 2009, the report proposed ways to meet the President's goal of graduating five million more Americans from community colleges by 2020. Then on Tuesday, the President headed to hard-hit Michigan addressing a crowd at Macomb County Community College to underline the key role community colleges will play in "rebuilding a better economy."

Earlier, as she kicked off the President's summer service initiative, United We Serve, at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in San Francisco, first lady Michelle Obama  made an equally significant pronouncement on another Obama administration strategy on  how to create a better economy for this country and its youth.

"This new Administration doesn't view service as separate from our national priorities, or in addition to our national priorities - we see it as the key to achieving our national priorities.  We believe that the only way to build that new foundation for our economy is to establish a new role for service in this country."

She wasn't talking about the kind of consulting services or information technology services that have made fortunes for companies like IBM or McKinsey, nor about the American public's current bête noire, financial services.  Rather, she was explicitly invoking the role of community based, non-profit service organizations and the public's participation in activities designed to supplement the expanding role of government as key to America's economic health. 

The two initiatives are inter-related. In expanding the opportunity for young people to serve their communities and providing money for their education afterwards, the Obama administration is seeking to create community based service experiences to provide skills for  future job seekers.  Millennials (born between 1982-2003) are experiencing unemployment rates more than 8% higher than the national average, while carrying an average of $27,000 in student loan and  $2000 in credit card debt. They need policy ideas, such as those suggested by NDN and the President, to address the economic challenges they face.

At the same time, the First Lady's proposal speaks directly to the spirit of service that is such a distinguishing characteristic of this  generation. While in high school, Millennials participate in community service activities at three times the rate that members of Generation X did in the 1980s (80% vs. 27%). Virtually all Millennials believe that volunteer service activities are a good way to solve both local and national problems.  

The notion that voluntary service can help remake America harkens back to the sense of common purpose that pervaded the country during our last civic era.  During the Great Depression millions of young people served in the Civilian Conservation Corps. During WWII Americans on the home front were encouraged to "Buy Bonds" rather than spend money on themselves. And in the 1950's many people in virtually every American community participated in the efforts of service organizations like Kiwanis or the Elks club to help the most needy in the community.

The Obama administration believes that instead of returning to  traditional sources of employment such as manufacturing or construction trades that were often the entry point for young people in the old economy, Millennials will need to acquire the kind of skills taught in community colleges and/or learned by helping community-oriented non-profit organizations if they hope to advance economically.  In the Obama administration's  conception, it won't be just government providing a "stimulus" that will get the country back on its economic feet, but also the initiative of individual citizens in finding work that will improve their local community.  As the First Lady put it in San Francisco:

Our government can rebuild our schools, but we need people to serve as mentors and tutors in those schools, to serve on the PTA and chaperone those field trips. 

Our government can modernize our health care system, but we need people to volunteer to help care for the sick and help people lead healthier lives. 

Our government can invest in clean energy, but we need people to use energy-efficient products, keep our public spaces clean, and train for the green jobs of the future.

Whether these two strategies will produce enough jobs to significantly reduce unemployment and once again provide upward mobility and economic stability for young working Americans remains to be seen. For the sake of the Millennial Generation's economic future and America's economic vitality, we can only hope the administration's plan works.