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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Look forward, not backward on Labor Day

This Labor Day marks a time of change, anxiety and hope for the American worker. Though the economy is strengthening, many Americans are still struggling to find their place amid the sweep of global trade, innovations and technology, and changes in training and education that have redefined the concepts of careers and social mobility. This holiday is a moment to recognize that earlier generations overcame some of these same challenges to build a stronger future for their families and the nation.

The economic recovery keeps chugging along, even though the tepid pace of growth and the slow rebound in incomes has led to continued anxiousness in many parts of the country. Consumer spending is solid, housing prices are on the uptick and the employment picture has reached a stable level of about half the 10 percent jobless rate the country faced in October 2009. Americans are by nature a confident and resilient people, and the economy is providing ample reason for a forward-looking mentality.

Still, the recession left many scars that won't heal any time soon, especially in the older industrial cities where high-wage jobs in manufacturing and other industries are gone and have not been replaced by high-tech, data-driven businesses positioned for the 21st century. Both of the presidential campaigns have tried to capitalize on these fears, pointing (wrongly) to global trade accords that have steered manufacturing jobs to cheaper labor markets abroad. But the displacement of factories has been occurring over time, and much of the job loss can be tied to technology rather than trade. Foreign trade brings cheaper materials to America, expands its consumer products market and creates jobs in Florida and elsewhere. Foreign trade also underpins America's national security interests across the world.

The apprehension workers feel, though, is understandable, especially among those in crowded labor markets without a college degree or advanced training who see the jobs picture increasingly as one in which freelancers vie for itinerant work. The presidential candidates need to offer a jobs program that helps American workers at all steps on the ladder, from young workers to those who are older. Many older workers have plenty to offer and are looking to build stronger retirements, and they can contribute to the nation's economic health.

Labor Day is a celebration of the vitality and endurance of the American worker. The economic and social achievements of the nation's workforce are the envy of the world. But progress has also created angst, bitterness and confusion in the working world. Legacy employers are giving way to startups; small businesses are entering the global marketplace; and communities are thinking about how to become more competitive in the digital age. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the fastest-growing occupation in America is wind turbine technician.

There is no shortage of anxiety in the workforce — but no shortage of creativity, either. This holiday salutes the rich history of the nation's workforce and the new opportunities that come with every era. Rather than dwelling on past successes that will not be re-created, political candidates and business leaders should focus on the future and on creating a workforce that is better able to compete in an economy that transcends political boundaries.

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