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What's in a job?

TALKING about jobs -- the quality of those that exist and the challenge of those that are being lost from changes in technology -- seems almost irrelevant at a time of prosperity. And yet, what better time to plan for the future on the job front then precisely when one can do so unburdened by the need to fashion hundreds of thousands of new positions to redress widespread unemployment? The United States -- and the American people -- need to undertake some hard thinking about the nature of their overall workplace. Saying that is not necessarily to endorse calls for a mandated, massive federal jobs program. But it is to suggest that society as a whole needs to confront the jobs issue with greater clarity than it has so far. The latest civilian statistics, with unemployment inching upward slightly for May to 7.3 percent, from 7.1 percent in April, add impetus to such an examination.

The US has done a remarkable job in creating new jobs, as many as 9 million or more since the beginning of the decade.

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But the upbeat statistics hide some disquieting trends: Millions of Americans remain out of work; millions of people counted as having ``jobs'' are actually part-time employees; the largest segment of the newly created positions consists of comparatively low-paying service jobs; again, many of these situations are found in suburban areas, distant from inner-city areas where the highest unemployment rates are to be found.

Moreover, while new, low-paying jobs in the service sector are being created, the nation continues to lose its relatively high-paying and skilled manufacturing jobs. Some 100,000 manufacturing positions have been lost this year alone.

There is no gainsaying that the deeper forces now at work within US society will continue -- such as the downsizing of the nation's industrial sector.

But at the same time, the US needs to recognize that a part of the job loss on the manufacturing front is the result of a failure to rectify the current US trade imbalance. Washington needs to take more vigorous steps to protect its vital industrial base, such as reducing the deficit and thus putting continued downward pressure on interest rates, which help prop up the dollar and put US goods at a global disadvantage.

The US also needs to better match unemployed people with job opportunities in other parts of the US.

Ensuring full employment -- and not just in numerical terms, but maintaining the best possible quality of jobs -- remains a sine qua non of an enlighted society. Surely, in an age of extensive computer banks, the US can and should be doing more to ensure the best in job opportunities for its current and future work force.

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