WANT A JOB picking apples in the Virginia orchards? Probably not. Neither do most other Americans, even those who have no other jobs. Farm laborers lead a harsh and uncertain life. The Virginia apple growers say that they cannot recruit enough Americans to handle the harvest, and they want to import foreign labor, mainly from Jamaica. The Labor Department says that the growers want foreign hands only because they are more docile, and it has refused to approve admitting them. Last week, a federal judge ordered the department to grant approval, but the department is grumbling and resisting.
When the court's ruling was reported on the front page of this newspaper, you may have noticed that, by an illuminating coincidence, a story in the adjoining column noted the unemployment rate among black youths. It is now at the highest level ever recorded. On the following day the August unemployment figures appeared. The nationwide rate has moved back up to 7.1 per cent of the labor force, with most of the increase among blacks. The rate for black teenagers last month was 40.4 per cent, compared with 14.7 per cent among whites of the same ages. Yet, there are jobs open, as the case of the unpicked apples suggests.
A Labor Department official acknowledged that the imported Jamaicans are good, hard workers, but he rather defensively argued that unemployed Americans "could be trained into very good workers, too." Trained? To pick apples? Surely, training has very little to do with it. Part of the trouble here is geography, and part is what you might call morale. The apples are in the Virginia countryside, but most of the unemployed young people are in the cities. Recruiting city people for orchard work means consigning them to the life of the rural labor camps. For most urban Americans, going to work as casual farm labor constitutes a very long step backward.
It is the paradox of the labor market in a society that makes a cardinal virtue of upward mobility, ambition and advancement. Nobody wants to move back down the ladder, even under the pressure of poverty. When people are forced to do it, they commonly bring with them a burden of resentment that is inimical to the kind of disciplined efficiency that, for example, is demonstrated by the Jamaican apple pickers.
The case of the apple pickers can be duplicated in most of the industrial countries. Unemployment in Northern Europe is now at its highest point in a generation, but there are still plenty of Turks and Algerians working hard at the jobs that Frenchmen and Germans will no longer touch. Perhaps a high unemployment rate will turn out to be a characteristic of a rich country. But it becomes particularly corrosive and divisive when it centers on specific categories of people - in this country, those who are young and black - who have never had steady work and see very little prospect of finding it.
The Carter administration is currently getting a good deal of criticism for its failure to come up with a broad solution, with immediate impact, to that kind of unemployment. But there is, in reality, no such thing as a broad solution with immediate impact. The only genuine remedies are going to be partial, local and experimental. It's a highly intricate matter of fitting people and jobs together in their own patterns. Trying to train city people to pick Virginia apples, for example, is not a promising idea. Even the most hopeful of ventures will not always work, and yet there's a responsibility to keep trying. The one thing that the country cannot do with these unemployment rates is to ignore them. That's not an entirely new thought, but neither is it a bad one to repeat in the wake of the Labor Day rhetoric.