Big Ideas for Jobs Creation: A Q&A with Karen Chapple

Thirteen big ideas for programs and policies to create badly needed jobs in the United States were unveiled  Monday at a Washington, D.C., briefing in conjunction with the Big Ideas for Jobs Creation project of the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The ideas, presented in formal papers and  a policy brief, ranged from sustainable local food systems to turning waste into jobs. The winners were chosen by the Big Ideas team, led by Karen Chapple, acting director of the institute and a UC Berkeley associate professor of city and regional planning, who received submissions from invited academics, nonprofit leaders and economic development practitioners across the country.

The ideas reflect low-cost, readily implementable and sustainable programs that would create jobs for low-skilled workers — without gimmicks like budget transfers or wasteful incentive programs.

One of the Big Ideas for Job Creation involves retrofitting public buildings.

Before Chapple headed to Washington, D.C., we talked about the project and next steps.

How did the Big Ideas for Jobs Creation project originate?

For decades, the Casey Foundation has supported projects that advance economic opportunity for the disadvantaged. But their investments are often slow to pay off.   Bob Giloth, a vice president at the foundation, wrote me saying he was impatient with the pace of change — not just in their investments, but in D.C. policy-making, in particular, with regard to job creation.  He wondered if I would try to jump-start a national conversation and push it out of D.C. and into cities and states. California seemed like an excellent place to start, and I agreed immediately.

Why is the institute a good launching pad for this project?

The IRLE has access to some of the top labor economists in the country, and IRLE-affiliated researchers provided feedback for many of the papers produced for the Big Ideas for Jobs Creation Project. Also, there is a perception in the Capitol in Sacramento that the IRLE focuses on “interest group” (i.e. labor union) research. We often try to counteract that perception by looking more generally at employment conditions, and at our our own campus researchers’ work, like that of economist Sylvia Allegretto on unemployment and of economist Michael Reich on the living wage.

How did you select experts to propose sustainable, affordable jobs?

We developed a call for papers, which was circulated widely to academics, think tanks and practitioners.  We got about 40 responses. Many of the failed proposals were high quality, but focused only on labor supply rather than demand. For instance, people proposed streamlining job training, but there’s not necessarily a new job at the end of the training, so we nixed all those ideas.

We also got a lot of old ideas. A couple of people proposed the national infrastructure bank, which is in Obama’s American Jobs Act but has had a hard time getting off the ground.

Any big surprises among the submissions?

The Center for Law and Social Policy paper on subsidized jobs suggests extending a very successful program under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Obama’s new plan proposes this as well.  But the center goes one step further and suggests paying for it by eliminating the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which it feels is a wasteful program.

The recycling idea is a no-brainer — you can create 10 times as many jobs if you divert trash from landfills to recycling, reuse and remanufacture. Key to this is regulation at the city, county and state levels, and there already are great examples that can be models. 

Retrofitting public buildingsis what we should have done from the start, rather than targeting residential retrofitting — a very complex enterprise involving decision-making by millions of individual homeowners and work by contractors who often operate in the informal sector.  You can get very high levels of energy savings from these old public buildings the jobs are high quality because  the structures are commercial, the workers are often union contractors and within the energy service companies, there is already a mechanism for financing.

The early childhood education paper takes on a different problem — job preservation. If you can reduce job turnover by raising wages, you get a win-win by keeping workers in the field and attracting more educated workers.  

What do you hope the Big Ideas for Jobs Creation Forum accomplishes?

We want to empower locals to act.  We want some congressional staffers to pick up the ideas, and even if there is stalemate in Congress, they can bring them home to their colleagues in state and local government.  We’re finding more and more that we can get things done at the local level — witness the sales taxes for transit projects — when higher levels of government are paralyzed by politics.

What are the next steps after the forum?

It looks like we’re doing a second round!  The Kellogg Foundation is interested in joining the Casey folks in supporting this, and maybe we can get a funders’ network going. 

Not only do we want more ideas to fill some gaps in our project (we’d like more on small business and also on infrastructure), but also we’d like to reach out through our networks like the National League of Cities, or the National Governor’s Association, to bring these ideas to all state capitols.