Small business is key for labor chief

Michael Thurmond would like his business to slow down, but it only gets busier.

Thurmond, the state’s labor commissioner for nearly 11 years, has never seen so much “hurt, disappointment and fear” as he has in this downturn, with 483,000 unemployed Georgians. It’s going to get worse, he predicted, with joblessness in metro Atlanta cresting at 11.5 percent to 12 percent. It’s 10.7 percent now.

“I’m not the same person at all, having seen what I’ve seen,” said Thurmond, 56. “It has changed me in fundamental ways.”

How?

“I’m not focused on the next election. That’s not what drives me,” he said over lunch last week.

What does?

Coming up with a game plan to help drive a recovery in the state, he said.

Thurmond is focusing on the private sector, believing small business holds the key. He thinks the state and local governments need to develop their own strategies, because the federal stimulus is not going to do the trick.

To that end, Thurmond is planning to expand his department’s Georgia Works program. It gives participating employers eight weeks to train an unemployed worker. The state picks up the tab for the employee’s salary through unemployment insurance and a small stipend for each worker.

Over the past eight years, more than 5,000 white-collar and blue-collar workers have participated, he said, with 60 percent getting jobs at the participating company.

Thurmond would not discuss details of how he plans to expand the program, saying his department is working on that now. An announcement is expected around Labor Day.

But he knows that a lot more needs to be done. He thinks public officials and execs from the private sector should meet and develop a plan to rejuvenate our local economy.

“We need a bipartisan recovery strategy,” he said. “We need the best minds in the public and private sector to get together. … You test leadership when the storm is raging.”

While leaders develop a strategy, he said, unemployed workers should focus on developing new skills.

“I think the most under-appreciated institutions are the two-year colleges, like Georgia Perimeter and Atlanta Metropolitan,” Thurmond said. It’s a cost-effective way for the unemployed to gain more marketable skills.

As unemployment increases, Thurmond has to make two important decisions soon:

– The unemployment insurance fund has declined to about $500 million now, from $1 billion last December. Thurmond said he’ll decide in September whether to take advantage of an interest-free federal loan to replenish the fund. Workers’ benefits will continue regardless of his decision.

– By December, Thurmond will decide whether to increase premiums on companies to bolster the unemployment fund.

He also has a third decision to make. Thurmond has been approached about joining the U.S. Labor Department in the Obama administration. He also has thought about running for lieutenant governor here.

But, for now, he said he’s focusing on trying to improve the home front, a job he relishes given double-digit unemployment.

“I was born to be labor commissioner right now. You got to want the ball with three seconds left. I want the ball.”

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