I remember President Clinton giving one of his incredibly convincing speeches about boosting the economy, world trade, and transitioning screwed middle class workers from good jobs to theoretically better jobs if we just had this one thing: training.
So we funded a lot of training, largely focused on tech. Tech was gonna save everything. And then the market collapsed in 2000 and we hit the recession, and no amount of training would create new jobs for everyone getting training.
Training is important. Some people really thrive with it–they hit the classroom, hit the books, get first-hand exposure to new equipment, machinery, and technology, and companies hire them right after completion of the course or degree.
Yet manufacturers around here complain that they can’t get enough skilled workers. And this is for “good” jobs, with pay starting at $18/hr and higher.
Yet we have relatively high unemployment, and the city sports a high poverty rate and a higher near-poverty rate, making up 75% of its residents.
So how is this possible? Training is available, the jobs are available, so why the high unemployment, poverty, and unfilled jobs?
It’s because both the training and the jobs require an existing platform of skills and education, and that’s where the gap is. If someone hasn’t finished high school, or finished but isn’t literate (how is it possible that SDOL graduates 82% of seniors, yet 50% aren’t proficient at reading and math?), they won’t get through the training if they’re even admitted to the program.
If the goal is to employ people, you have to meet them where they are. We definitely have a lot of talented people getting solid jobs in local manufacturing; something like a gagillion percent of Stevens College graduates land jobs before they even graduate, with high starting pay.
But we have a significant number of neighbors who don’t have that basic foundation of education and skill. And it’s unlikely–not impossible, but unlikely–that they’ll get there.
So what to do?
You have to meet them where they are. We need to create demand for products and services that require little skill or education, but that also pay well. That’s what we’re trying hard to do at The Lancaster Food Company. We have a relatively high entry wage & benefits, and anyone who can lift 50 lbs and learn parts of the production can apply.
What other businesses could create demand for low-skilled labor? Or where skills could be developed? It could be service work, furniture production, bookbinding, composting–many, many types. The key is not to chase cheap labor overseas and keep these types of jobs here.
But what’s missing are the businesses–new ones and existing–focused on creating demand for those kinds of jobs. We’re hoping to see more businesses that build their model around ethical wages and unskilled or low-skilled labor.
That’s how we’ll end poverty in the city as we know it, and that’s how we’ll get the unemployment rate down. It will reduce crime, improve housing, and improve education. It will take 15 to 20 years for the full effect, but the immediate effect will be felt in the families of those that get the jobs, the place they live, and the places they shop.
Clinton was right, but he was wrong about the universal impact of training; it’s good for some people, but for others, you have to meet them where they are.