• Peter Osborne

Fortenberry: We need to restore the idea of meaningful work

Awhile back, I visited a small business called Craft Axe Throwing and Beer. An interesting combination of activity, I thought. I had driven by it many times and wondered what it was all about. Seeing their team in action providing a novel form of enjoyment, using creative skill, making a living, and enjoying themselves––well, that’s what it’s all about. As a society, we need to restore the idea of meaningful work. Unfortunately, there are multiple obstacles in the way: the inability to find work, jobs going unfilled, programs that incentivize not seeking work, a mismatch of talent to skills required, and collegiate training ill-suited to employer needs. A Lincoln (Nebraska) small business owner wrote to me last week: “Good morning, Jeff. As a local business owner, how are we supposed to hire people to support our business when we are competing with state and federal government unemployment checks? Our government is paying people NOT to go to work. Help.” The main driver of new jobs in America is small business: people working with their own hands, being creative, imaginative, entrepreneurial. According to the Small Business Administration, businesses with fewer than 100 employees account for roughly 98% of all U.S. firms and are responsible for most new jobs. Since September, unemployment has been on a steady downward trend, helping small businesses rebound. Then came the April Jobs Report. It was bad. Most economists predicted over 1 million new jobs would be created in April. Only 266,000 were. This seeming hiccup revealed a deeper, more enduring set of facts. 8 million jobs remain unfilled in America. 44% of small business owners recently surveyed said that they can’t fill the job openings they have. The hard data confirm what small business owners tell me––they have the jobs, they want to expand, yet they struggle to find persons who will apply. If you can’t fill the positions you have, you have no incentive to add more. With America opening back up, nearly half the adult population vaccinated, the freedom to dine, attend a movie, and travel increasingly happening, you’d think the opposite would be true. During the peak of the pandemic, I was pleased that my office helped Nebraska lead the nation in per capita Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans approved, so small businesses and their employees could stay afloat as we weathered the COVID storm. The PPP saved over 300,000 jobs in Nebraska alone. You can’t start and stop a business like a light switch. These efforts along with important help for those suffering unemployment were a necessary policy response. Now it’s time to shed the “government-can-fix all” idea, get out of the way, and let America run. One other issue: wages. They need to go up and are doing so at a steady 4% rate thus far this year. But we have to be careful: higher wages are easy for large multinational corporations to digest; they can easily adjust prices. For small businesses, it’s harder. Large corporations can also outsource work to foreign suppliers operating under lax labor and environmental standards and at far lower wages. And they possess the political, financial, and legal muscle to weather or evade new taxes and regulations. Small businesses do not. I’m not interested in more corporate conglomerate takeover of America’s economy. Work is a social good. But it’s about more than sustenance. It is about maximizing one’s talents for fulfillment and well-being. It builds esteem. It ennobles. It allows for full participation in community. Creating the proper conditions for new jobs and sustained Main Street recovery will go a long way toward reestablishing the hope, vibrancy, and connection we long for. U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry represents the 1st Congressional District of Nebraska and is a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership.