Later this year, a marketing manager will sit down for his first day of work at HomeAway, a company that helps people rent their vacation homes online. In the firm's sleek Austin, Texas, headquarters, a glass-wrapped building decorated with travel souvenirs, the marketer will flip on his computer and do his job a job no one has done before. This, you see, will be a brand-new job, one of the most coveted commodities of economic recovery.
How this job will come to exist is at the heart of the most pressing problem in the economy today. Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the U.S. has shed 8.4 million more jobs than it has gained. The unemployment rate hovers near 10%, and broader measures of labor-market woes that include underutilized workers are as high as 16.8%. Go down the nation's list of economic problems from mortgage defaults to state-budget shortfalls and joblessness lurks in the background.
Even as other economic signals have started to turn positive, the jobs situation has remained bleak. In February, the economy lost a net 36,000 jobs, which is leagues better than the 726,000 lost in February a year earlier but points in the wrong direction all the same. Were the economy to magically start generating jobs at a healthy clip say, 200,000 a month it would still take 3½ years to return to where we were, never mind the jobs we need for new entrants to the workforce.
This reality has triggered a nearly convulsive political response, given that elections are won and lost over the state of the economy and the mind-set of wage earners. That's why President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, called jobs his "No. 1 focus" and proposed repurposing bank-bailout money to lend more to small businesses, which would then, presumably, generate jobs. On March 17, Congress passed a job-creation bill that includes, among other things, an estimated $13 billion worth of tax incentives to coax companies into adding to their payrolls.
The cold truth of the matter, though, is that there's not much Washington can do to gin up permanent jobs on such short notice. The federal government is a key player in engendering job growth in the long term by establishing smart policy in areas such as trade, education, immigration, health care, energy, infrastructure and taxes but over the course of months or even a few years, there's little it can effectively do besides hiring directly or stepping in as a buyer of goods and services.
The great American job-creation machine always has been and will continue to be private enterprise. The problem is that companies are beat-up from the longest economic contraction since the Great Depression. Plenty of economists think the worst is now behind us, but firms are still plagued by uncertainty about how fast the economy will recover. Nor can they plan responsibly without knowing the bottom-line costs of the massive new initiatives out of Washington on health care reform and carbon-emission regulation. Even companies that are financially fit often don't feel like taking the risk of ramping up operations and hiring more workers. There's been political pressure on banks to lend, but the problem for some bankers, like Frost Bank CEO Dick Evans, is that many businesses are debt-shy. "I'm aggressively trying to make loans, but right now they don't want to borrow," he says. "At this point," says Harvard Business School strategy expert Michael Porter, "the No. 1 thing that will create jobs is the perception and confidence that the economy will start growing again."
The good news is the perception as well as the reality is improving in some areas of the country. Just 12 out of 384 metropolitan areas ended 2009 with more jobs than they had at the beginning of the year, but more recently, the numbers have been looking better. Over the past six months (through January), 72 cities gained jobs, according to a Moody's Economy.com analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That may seem like a slow start, but it's a meaningful one to people being hired in places like Flagstaff, Ariz., Augusta, Ga., and Lansing, Mich.
Austin lands on that list too. The central Texas city of 760,000 has a few built-in advantages over other cities. The University of Texas and the state government Austin is the capital provide some economic stability. And as the Southwest's technology center, Austin is home to many high-growth (though high-risk) companies. It is also a music mecca and the gateway to Texas hill country, attributes that help it attract desirable workers. For all these reasons, it hasn't been battered quite as hard as other cities by the recession; the unemployment rate was nearly 3 points below the national average at the end of last year. Still, the metro area has seen big job losses from major employers, including the computer maker Dell and semiconductor manufacturers like Freescale and Advanced Micro Devices. It's not hard to find the desperate stories here that you find throughout the rest of the country: the woman laid off from book publishing two years ago who hasn't been able to find a permanent job since; the interior decorator who used to have a six-figure salary and now sells furniture for $30,000 a year.
Yet Austin also offers a model of hope. The city's surfeit of computer-programming talent allowed a video-game outfit to hire 50 developers and designers in the past two months. A manufacturer is building a new plant north of town to take advantage of the growing commercial-lighting industry even as its construction-related business falls off. A pharmaceuticals start-up is looking for new lab workers. Some companies are expanding, and others markers of the city's entrepreneurial spirit are starting from scratch. Austin is emerging as one of the first pockets of the country where people are getting back to work, showing that even in this dreary economic environment, job creation can happen and illustrating how it will eventually take root around the nation.