This brief essay begins with questions and ends with questions. There should be answers, but I don’t know what they are, at least not yet. The questions are about jobs that enable a basic middle class lifestyle. The long term systemic solution depends on significant top down policy changes, but today I wonder about a few questions closer to home towns. Home towns across the nation are thirsting for jobs that pay well and offer entry into the middle class and beyond. Job growth numbers are robust, but many of them are low paying, part time, without benefits, dead end jobs offering no hope for a middle class lifestyle. Moreover, those robust job growth numbers have largely bypassed the hinterlands of the country.
Is any well paying job a good job? Americans tend to disapprove of people whose lives depend on welfare, or who have government make-work jobs that don’t really need to be done. How does that intersect with solid high paying skilled jobs making tanks (Abrams) the military doesn’t want, or fighter planes (F-35) grossly over budget and of doubtful future use? In what sense are they welfare jobs, make-work jobs? They prop up the economies of entire communities that depend on them. For those communities, and the politicians elected from them, it’s the jobs that count, and not the waste of taxpayer dollars. What if we quit throwing federal money in their direction, let them figure out their future on their own like real Americans are supposed to do. Then we could invest those funds in ways that might underwrite more jobs, doing work that actually needs to be done in more places, providing a higher standard of living for more people? Rebuilding the infrastructure might be a possibility. I like that idea.
Defense contractors are always the easy target, and for good reason, but there are others. There are jobs that pay well in profitable industries, but are they jobs we want even if we desperately need jobs? Here in the Pacific Northwest it was proposed to build coal and oil terminals in some of our ports that would be fed by pipelines and mile long trains. With timber on the decline, these would be great jobs for a lot of people, but what about the environmental cost? Is it a price worth paying? What about the rapidly diminishing returns on coal shipments as demand for coal plummets? Even oil is a commodity whose long term price is on shaky ground. Is the public investment required to get them on line worth the long term risk? What would these jobs mean for our quality of life? For that matter, what is quality of life? It’s hard to have quality of life when jobs for ordinary people pay little and offer no future. Maybe a short term bet is worth it.
The North Dakota oil field towns made their short term bet. Whether it paid off or not depends on the long term environmental cost of production, and whether they invested their windfall or spent it. Wyoming coal towns made the same bet decades ago. How have they fared?
The economy of our valley is based on agriculture, higher education, health care, and government. In the last decade, wine based tourism has become another leg supporting our economic stool. Job and population growth has been steady but slow. The local port authority keeps talking about working with businesses to create more “family wage jobs,” meaning jobs that pay enough for an ordinary family to live with some degree of security in a home, with a car, enough food to eat, and adequate clothing for all. Even in our rural area, that demands an annual family income of around $50,000, or $25 per hour. New jobs in our area pay around $10 to $15 per hour depending on skill and experience. Average income in 2014 was around $38,000 a year with professional jobs averaging closer to $60,000 and retail/service jobs in the low $20,000 range (I don’t know what the 2016 numbers might be). Unless you are in the professional class, it’s unlikely that you will find a job that will offer entry into the middle class. You may even find it hard to rent a home you can afford, much less buy. The free food pantry will undoubtedly become a regular stop for your family.
What are we to do? Not everyone is equipped to join the ranks of professionals. Would we be happy to build unneeded tanks or overpriced fighters? Probably. If Portland doesn’t want a coal and oil terminal, would we be happy to have it at our end of the Columbia River? Maybe. Jobs that pay well are very enticing.
The issue is complicated, and there will be no going back to high paid union jobs where all you have to do is put in the hours to get paid. There has to be a different, better way to approach the issue. For instance, retail and restaurants tend to be low paying operations, but consider the difference between a few local businesses. The local Macy’s employs staff on the floor who are little more than checkout clerks at the register. That’s about it. Whatever additional help they might give is incidental and infrequent. Another local clothing store employs staff who are responsible for seeing that ‘clients’ have a successful shopping experience buying just the right things that work for them. Their staff can make a living in retail. Servers at low end restaurants take orders and process payment. If they do it well, they get a modest tip. Servers at the best places in town, including some popular breakfast joints, establish relationships with diners with the intent of making their experience more than just eating. They may not enter the middle class on a servers wage and tips, but they get close, and in the process they learn what it takes to run a successful business.
With that modest observation in mind, I suggest that one key to better paying jobs may be customer service, especially with tourism playing a greater role in our economy. It’s something that doesn’t require a high degree of technical skill or professional education. It does require an owner with an attitude of generosity. It’s a bottom up approach. It may not have much impact on national economic policy, but it could make a big local difference. Would it work? Maybe. It couldn’t hurt to try.
Like I said, I don’t have any real answers, just questions.