2.28.2009

Where Will the Jobs Come From


One of the allures of green jobs is that they run the gamut of educational requirements - "from GED to PhD," as Mayor Nutter puts it. But Mayor Nutter also admits that there just aren't going to be tens of thousands of well-paying, low-skill jobs like there were in the manufacturing age: "Green Jobs Grow Slowly in Philadelphia."

The fact of the matter is that the more we move from agricultural to industrial to information, the more we move from a fat pyramid to a skinny hourglass: from lots of jobs at the bottom and an elite at the top, to a fair amount of jobs at the very top and the very bottom, but perhaps not enough in the middle. This poses a challenge for those who are under-educated and too old to make up the educational difference, or who are young and under-educated but distanced from the resources to make up the educational difference.

(Check out the startling table on page 4 of this case study on concentrated poverty in Milwaukee. In 1970, the top ten employers in that city were manufacturers and brewers. In 2004, no manufacturers and brewers in the top ten; instead, knowledge and service businesses: health care, grocery, banking, utility, printing, retail, insurance.)

To be sure, as I noted in a post earlier this month, our economic system is far more equitable now than in previous ages; whereas land and capital were near impossible for the disenfranchised to access in the past, knowledge is still attainable for all, however slim the odds for some. I am certainly not advocating a backwards step in how our economy is structured.

Remember, too, where all the jobs have gone: we have automated them away. The relentless and astonishing efficiency of our free market system has squeezed productivity out of almost every sector, resulting in unprecedented windfalls to all of us worldwide in the form of better products, better health care, and a better quality of life. If our monetary salaries reflect greater inequity, that truth must be balanced against an equally compelling truth, which is that all of us as consumers have enjoyed huge gains in terms of price, quality, and volume.

But again: where will the jobs come from? Not from the manufacturing sector, which has been shrinking everywhere, not just in the US and not just because of the current recession. Oh sure, we'll still make things, so we shouldn't turn our back completely on heavy industry; but just as we are seeing a clarion call to retrofit our buildings and structures for sustainability's sake, so we need to invest in our human capital and get people the education they need to compete in a modern, knowledge-based economy.

We may lament that there are no more blast furnaces that employ legions of workers; but remember, the information age can be a mega-employer, too. Consider that Google was two guys from Stanford barely ten years ago, and now employs 20,000+ people. IBM, left for dead in the 1990's, employs almost 400,000.

Now, some of these guys and gals are uber-PhD's. But not all of them. Which is why the news that some Pennsylvania schools are considering "no frills" degree tracks is so promising. After all, we all don't buy Bentleys; some of us get by with Aveos. Similarly, the full-amenity, four-year (or graduate) degree isn't for everyone. If you want to go to Harvard or Yale Law, be my guest; but if you want to pursue a less prestigious but still well-paying career in the legal profession and don't have three years and $150,000, shouldn't the ABA accredit institutions that can provide that "Aveo" version?

So we have to educate everyone, and we have to offer a broader range of educational options that span the gamut of peoples' budgets, intellectual capabilities, and career tracks. And secondly, we have to encourage entrepreneurship, so that there are new companies sprouting up that will employ all of these newly educated worker bees. Let more H-1B's into the country; if you're smart and want to come to America to work and innovate, the message should be "come on in and help us grow," and not "not welcome until everyone that's already here has a job." Teach entrepreneurship at the college and high school level, to inculcate to people of all races, incomes, and genders that starting a business is not something for someone else to do. And fund incubators around the country that can cluster like-minded innovators and the resources and opportunities they need to grow their new ventures.

The information age may be more meritorious than the agricultural or the industrial age. But it still needs national leadership and national resources and national policy. We have it in us to create enough jobs for everyone, if we'll let go of dreams to return to past ways and mistrusts that keep potential innovators out, and we free the amazing engine that is American ingenuity to do what it does best: build a better mousetrap.
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