Revitalize Your City By Helping Retrain Workers

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COMMENTARY | Leaders need to focus on cultivating and supporting startup growth, while also helping people get the skills to work in new environments.

Manufacturing jobs have increasingly been automated and outsourced, displacing hard-working Americans across the country. This major shift in the economy is actually the opportunity of a lifetime — and city officials must lead efforts to help low-skilled workers up the ladder.

In many ways, this is not a new trend. Throughout history, technological advancements have led to job elimination. The difference this time around is that we have all the information we need to do something about it.

We can be the first generation to get ahead of job loss. We can provide displaced workers with the skills they need to fill the growing number of open tech jobs.

It starts with leveling an uneven playing field.

Although every city in the United States is in the midst of transitioning to a highly digital, knowledge-based economy, the effects haven't been equal across the 50 states. Coastal cities, such as New York City or San Francisco, have largely replaced manufacturing jobs with knowledge-based ones at the same scale, but many of our oldest industrial economies have struggled to adjust to the new digital reality.

This means job growth in the United States is constricted to a small segment of the country—and employers are partially to blame. According to a report by The Brookings Institution, company leaders tend to plant their roots based on how easily they can access existing pools of talent; in the process, they shift job creation further toward coastal metropolitan areas. 

It is not that skill is concentrated on the coast, but that workers in the heartland just don’t have the same opportunities. 

For example, older industrial communities often have a severe digital divide, meaning many citizens simply do not have the tools to learn basic digital skills. Furthermore, in older industrial cities, workers of color are—and have historically been— much more likely to hold low-paying, low-skill jobs than white workers.

As more and more low-skill jobs become automated, the rift between low- and high-skilled workers will only grow.

Ultimately, it is up to government entities to cultivate new opportunities for underserved communities—and city leaders know this. It is why a report by the National League of Cities found economic development was the most frequently discussed policy issue in mayoral speeches. 

That said, talking about creating jobs is not enough to drive true economic change. Reviving economic growth starts with giving all community members access to training resources and education opportunities.

Many older industrial cities are suffering from economic imbalances. Job growth is outpacing the number of viable candidates, and without any intervention, it is only going to get worse.

Leaders need to focus on cultivating and supporting startup growth; many cities focus on attracting talent, but they should be allocating resources to grow it. Without community support, small businesses and startups will move to coastal cities, where finding talent and investors is not an issue.

A lack of resources will not just cause businesses to move; graduates from local universities can power talent pools, but if there are not enough open jobs, candidates leave the area.

Traditional education is not the only way to bolster these pools of talented workers. We can expect the economic gap to widen if lower-income residents lack opportunity to learn tech skills. Automation will not eliminate every job, but it will certainly change the landscape of many professions. Lower-skilled workers will need to learn new skills to keep up with these changes.

Some cities that meet Brookings' criteria of "older industrial cities" are already taking steps to revive their communities. St. Louis, which is on Brookings’ list of strong older industrial cities, is not experiencing rapid population growth, but it is seeing improved economic well-being of its citizens.

For one thing, St. Louis has become a hub for startups, revitalizing job growth. The city has invested in rebuilding the local economy with homegrown companies. These efforts include supporting startup incubators like T-Rex, which has created almost 3,500 new jobs in fewer than 10 years. My organization has provided training in high-demand tech skills for more than 3,000 individuals experiencing employment barriers in St. Louis alone.

As the United States' economy continues its shift from manufacturing work to knowledge-based work, city officials must bridge the gap between citizens in low-skill jobs and affordable, accessible educational opportunities.

Jeff Mazur is the executive director for LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization aiming to fill the gap in tech talent by matching companies with trained individuals.

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