Every week I open The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help to a different section, copy out the first selection I see, and past it in here. Like what you see? Check out the whole book – print or e-reader. You’ll be glad you did. Honest and for true.
This section is edited from a piece written by my good friend Bill Lutz, a community development manager in a pretty forward-thinking small city. Bill captures the essence of the conflict that faces economic development today — and sets it in the framework of ongoing generational change.
We need to have our eyes wide open about how the world is changing around us, especially if we are old enough to have gotten comfortable with the status quo. As a Gen Xer, I find myself straddling two increasingly divergent views of the world — views that are firmly ensconced among people ten years older, and ten years younger, than I am.
In my professional life, I don’t see this division as pronounced anywhere as it is in the world of economic development. Too often the actions of community leaders in the field, on the ground, reflect old and unspoken assumptions about what a community needs for its economy. And as Bill points out, in a different way than anything else I have read on this topic, our assumptions about something as fundamental as what it is that the “talent” wants may be diverging from reality.
We’re going to have to change. So we might as well get started. I’ll let Bill take it from here
Last month, a nearby city collected a major win in the game of economic development. A nutritional supplement maker decided to build a new production plant for one of their products in this small community. The project will lead to the building of a new $270 million facility and create in excess of 200 jobs. These are substantial and impressive figures.
Each week, drive by the site and each week there is more and more progress on this massively large building. But I can’t help but wonder if this facility is creating the jobs that our future employees will want to fill.
Is any project that promises hundreds of jobs creating the jobs that future employees will want to fill?
I know it’s almost sacrilegious to ask such questions in the heartland of American manufacturing, and there’s no shortage of people out there who would be glad to take any job, not matter what. But in terms of the people that we keep identifying as the Talent, I think these are more open questions than we want to admit.
Ask anyone currently managing manufacturing industries, and you’ll hear the same refrain: there are not enough qualified people to fill the jobs that are out there. That sounds counter intuitive, given the relatively high unemployment rates. Looking at those that are younger, the unemployment rates are even higher. And we increasingly attribute that to a Job-Skills Mismatch, and try to redouble efforts to provide new, better, more sophisticated training.
And yet, these gaps persist — and they persist so broadly that it’s clearly more than a one-industry problem. There’s something more pervasive here, even after we account for the usual complaints of less-than-ideal literacy skills, work ethic, drug testing, etc.
All of those issues might be factors, and more. But I think it’s too convenient to simply blame this generation’s perceived lack of work ethic or poor education. I am sure my grandfather’s generation thought my father’s peers were a bunch of slack-jawed hippies who couldn’t carry their own weight.
What I am starting to believe is that the jobs we are creating aren’t the types of jobs the next generation wants or needs to fill.
If you read a broad cross-section of the regional and national press about economic development issues, two themes emerge pretty consistently:
#1: Economic developers all across the country are tripping over themselves to get big businesses to come to town — and often throwing a lot of money at them in the hopes that this will make something happen.
#2: Young job seekers, particularly the ones that we identify as our potential Talent, aren’t interested in working for big corporate conglomerates. There’s growing evidence – and there has been for a decade or more – that post-Boomer workers are looking for something very different from the Organization Man model that most corporations still hew to in their practices… even if the promises that were supposed to come with Organization Man employment can no longer be trusted.
Take those two statements together, and you get a very different sense of where the problem might lie.
The post-Boomer generations of workers grew up in turbulent times. In many parts of the U.S. and the world, they saw their parents and other adults lose their jobs, whether it was the manufacturing collapse of the 1970s and 80s or the corporate restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s. They know that their parents had been told that theirs were supposed to be career jobs, but it didn’t turn out that way. Job loss wasn’t invented in 2008 – the post-Boomer generations, to a large extent, never had reason to develop faith in the corporation.
In part due to the lack of these jobs, many in this generation grew up with their mothers going to work leading to another generational phenomenon: the latchkey kid. These were the kids that came home from school to an empty house, and it was in these few hours a day that these kids learned to be self-reliant.
So can we honestly be surprised when we see that the most talented of this generation of self-reliant individuals reject the job offers of big business when they come to town, or don’t last when they discover what a mismatch there is between their guts and these places?
There’s lots of information, both legitimate and sort of pop culture-ish, that claims that post-Boomer workers demand to be flexible and agile. They want to continually build new skills and new abilities, and if necessary, many are willing to do it on their own. Fewer and fewer of these workers seem to be interested in signing up for a job, only to be pigeon-holed in a dead end — especially with the ever-present risk of a pink slip handing over their head.
We keep trying to get more jobs, more economic development. But potentially the biggest problem, and the one that no one seems to be addressing, is that this approach to economic development may fail to answer a much more significant question:
Are the communities we live in attracting the kind of jobs and careers we need if we want to sustain our communities’ futures?