Barkin: Job No. 1 for the next governor: More jobs

dbarkin@newsobserver.comMay 17, 2012 

There are a lot of things that gubernatorial candidates can tell us, but really I’m mostly interested in what they can do to help job creation. Notice I didn’t say “create more jobs,” because that’s the private sector’s job. But governors have a role here.

There are really bad things state governments can do to mess up an economy. Like high taxes, over-regulation, corruption that requires a payoff for every permit. I have lived in states where you got the feeling that bureaucrats sat around worrying all day long that somewhere, somehow, some business was making a profit.

So sometimes the best thing a state government can do is get the heck out of the way. But that’s just the half of it. Effective governors can make a difference in a state’s economy if they work really, really hard and stay focused.

Here’s the situation: We have about 450,000 unemployed people in North Carolina.

The unemployment rate is 9.7 percent, which is ridiculously high for North Carolina. The state had been a 50-year economic success story until recently.

So I propose that the major goal for the next governor be to get the unemployment rate cut in half.

You can’t do this by recruiting a major employer to move here each month. First, that can’t be done. There aren’t enough of them out there, and, anyway, with the extortionate incentives these kinds of firms require, we’d go broke.

The way you get 200,000, 300,000 additional jobs is in ones and twos. There are about 200,000 businesses in North Carolina, of all sizes, and many of them are paralyzed at the thought of hiring.

They are doing everything they can to avoid taking on more employees. Even when business picks up, they work like the dickens to figure out ways to get orders out the door without staffing up. Because they aren’t sure it’s going to last, or the cost of health care and other benefits per employee is eating them alive, or they aren’t sure what’s going to happen to their tax rates. They’d rather pay overtime than hire extra workers, at least until they get more clarity on the future.

So I would suggest that the gubernatorial candidates figure out some concrete things the state can do – or stop doing – to give these businesses more incentive to add workers.

Maybe it’s helping to develop deeper export markets. Maybe it’s training workers for hard-to-fill jobs. Maybe it’s figuring out how to make the tax system simpler so employers can spend more time drumming up business and less time in the back room filling out forms. Maybe it’s streamlining the permitting process, or eliminating rules that don’t make any sense.

But I would start with the proposition that we need more jobs in North Carolina and that the governor ought to be focused on that 24/7.

There are people who want an Education Governor, or Environmental Governor, or Good Roads Governor, etc., etc.

It’s easy to get distracted when you’re governor, but the No. 1 challenge is encouraging and making it easier for people who run companies to hire. Everything else gets better if the unemployment rate goes down.

Either Walter Dalton or Pat McCrory is going to be the boss next January. Each should start creating a list of things that need to be done, job wise, that they can start working on after the inauguration. They shouldn’t worry if they get criticized for being focused on such mundane things as obsessing on how to make it easier for a small business to hire. They shouldn’t worry if people think they’re not big-picture enough.

When Lou Gerstner was hired as CEO of IBM, someone asked him what his vision was for the company. This was in the early 1990s, when IBM was losing enormous amounts of money. Vision? Vision! We’re bleeding from the ears! The last thing we need now is vision, he harrumphed. We’ve got to stop losing money. IBM exists today because of Gerstner’s no-nonsense, bottom-line approach.

The last thing we need in the next governor is a high-falutin’ visionary with lots of applause lines but no moxie. We’re in a deep ditch. I don’t want a North Carolina 2040 Plan out of the next governor.

We need someone who will literally roll up his sleeves and figure out how the state government can help the private sector now. That’s going to take a lot of digging in, finding stuff out, following through, moving the bureaucracy, knocking heads at times. It’s going to be back-breaking hard work requiring an engaged manager.

As you look at the two candidates for governor, ask yourself who you think has the passion, curiosity, and focus for that kind of work. I honestly don’t know the answer to that right now.

But I am not going to be impressed with a candidate who spends all his time running down the other guy.

I wouldn’t hire a job prospect for an important managerial job whose major selling point to me is that the other guy is a bum.

I want to know what in this candidate’s background will convince me that he’s got the stuff for a very tough job, helping to get people back to work.

Put it another way: which one of these guys strikes you as being more likely to be in the office on a Saturday, trying to figure this out? Vote for him.

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