White Collar Blues is an Unaddressed Economic and Political Issue

Washington    A line in an Associated Press story in the local papers caught my eye:  “Since 2008, roughly a third of major US metro areas lost a great percentage of white-collar jobs than blue-collar jobs.”

That’s not the political and economic headliner that most people are following.  The Trump administration is trying to save the jobs of the last coal miners and their segment of the angry, underemployed factory workers in heavy industry.  General Motors announced layoffs of 14,000 workers recently, 8000 were white-collar and 6000 were blue collar.  Most of the focus has been on production facilities being shut down in the United States and Canada, but it seems that a huge number of the white-collar jobs shed by the company are highly skilled and well-paid engineers.  The much heralded and rocky transition from fuel injected combustion engines to self-driving and in many cases, battery operated vehicles means that mechanical engineers are being scuttled for software jockeys of a coming generation of workers.

These white-collar workers, just like the millions of blue-collar workers, are trainable and many of them are highly educated and proficient, but that doesn’t mean transitioning them to new skills and new jobs solves the problem of age, location, and simply the time necessary to learn and become proficient.

Where is the investment being made by federal and state governments in those retraining programs?  For decades it has been a poorly recognized scandal that virtually no level of government has built a replicable training and reskilling model. The Amazon search was interesting in bringing attention to a couple of cities that had made real progress in this area, but nationally we aren’t Germany.  We are still training hairdressers and auto mechanics in some communities!  I’m not sure how many of these white-collar workers are going to be voting Republican if the only job training is getting a certified nursing assistant certificate.

As candidates start to look at platforms that might make a difference in upcoming elections, these high-road training options need to be front and center.   Some politicians are getting this.  Talking to a friend in Wisconsin recently, it was encouraging how a newly elected governor and his staff were already reaching out for help and advice to the best and brightest with experience in the areas of exactly this kind of economic development, way past the daily news about trade spats and blaming other countries for our lack of investment in our people.

This is a fast-moving disaster coming our way with huge implications everywhere for everyone.  We need to move this closer to the top of the list.

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Real Jobs for Real People in the Informal Economy

Informal economy

New Orleans I argued yesterday that as important as “new” industries and mass employers are in finding real employment for millions, that the days when headlines of General Motors hiring 4000 workers are going to be few and far between.  What we need is localized informal workshops, training, production, marketing, and sales that can provide dignified, remunerative work for millions.  I for one am rethinking part of the Gandhian paradigm of trying to find “village” and home-based “industries that can produce livelihoods.

I’m not saying I have the answers here, but I’m clear that we need to start thinking in some additional dimensions that are based on hitting millions of scratch singles rather than the occasional homerun.  Here are some examples of good work that would provide real products and benefits:

  • Yard Work:  Seasonal, but ….
  • Home Repair and Rehab:  Easy to train and supervise and at the right price point, everybody needs it.
  • Food Production:  New Orleans, Detroit, and hundreds of other cities have the space without the skills for urban farmers.
  • Bio-diesel Production and Distribution:  Pick it up at restaurants, make it happen on small investment, and market widely.
  • Household Furniture:   In India and Kenya this is a road side “industry,” but the demand for serviceable, reasonable, household furniture is universal.  I could use a couple of big bookcases right now.
  • Repair Centers:   Once again this is a lesson from the rest of the world where repair trumps replacement and is accessible with basic training and supervision.
  • House Painting:   Inside in winter, outside the rest of the year.
  • Hauling:  It’s happening everywhere now, but there isn’t an efficient “dispatch” or distribution system for the work, which plagues many of these mass-employer.
  • Ride-shares or jitney trips
  • Recycling and small scale “green” work
  • Technical assistants and repair for computers and how to use them.

We need to reckon with a permanent pool of workers in an informal economy.   Many of the former trades’ people hired by Home Depot and Loews need to be hired by city and manpower agencies.  We need to convert social networking to jobs information, dispatch, and distribution as well as things like patch.com.

We would need to adapt public and private “micro-lending” to these kinds of domestic informal industries.

We would also need to reckon with a different way of understanding “social security” payments and health provision for workers in this kind of economy (see the “Maharashtra Model” in current Social Policy magazine.

We would need to be willing to look at work and workers differently.

Maybe we ought to look at work that is on the other side of the law now and is killing our communities, and making it all street legal so that the workforce involved also is formalized, but that’s a longer subject for another time.

I need to do some back of the envelope math on how many jobs might be produced on small scale, home and community based efforts, but for now though I could be wrong about everything I’m saying there, I am clearly correct that we simply must change the paradigm for how we think about mobs and employment for the mass of workers who have no work in today’s economy.

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