If you follow my twitter feed, you know that I’ve been thinking about jobs lately. Well, okay, everyone’s thinking about jobs lately. The president’s talking about it, the media’s dancing around it, my job is all about it, Richard Florida as usual is writing about it. But lately I’ve been thinking about not just what we’re saying about jobs, but, more importantly, what kind of jobs we’re talking about.
Last semester, I did a design studio project about economic development in Boston’s Innovation District. I argued that creative and innovation economy strategies, which focus on highly skilled jobs and highly educated workforces, drive a wedge between the rich and the poor, a wedge that is growing faster in New England than anywhere else. New England, and in particular New England cities, are one of the most highly educated regions of the country, most equipped to take advantage of the innovation economy. And that’s what everyone’s talking about…the rise of cities as a hub of economic generation, the emergence of technology as a key for American leadership, the important nexus between design and engineering needed to produce blockbuster products like the iPad. We’re also talking about green technology: how to harvest energy from algae, build more efficient car batteries, create sustainable home insulation products. Of course, all of these industries are essential for economic progress and economic recovery; without new products, where will we get new jobs? But these are all jobs for engineers, for web designers, for product designers and computer programmers. And given the striking inequality that this system seems to perpetuate, don’t we need to be talking about something different? About jobs for those being edged and kept out of the economy in America–not just the middle class but those folks who have been struggling, and struggling profoundly, for decades, as our economy changed?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question, and how cities, towns, and communities might be able to start getting our hands around this issue, building our economies using local resources like the arts and innovation, but without leaving some residents behind. Education of course is an essential component of this process, and people are rightly focusing on it as an important tool for promoting equity in the 21st century economy. I support in particular “STEAM” initiatives, that teach science, technology, math and the arts to youth and adults in order to create well-rounded students with the capacity for creativity and innovation. You’ll see me writing more about education on this blog, since it’s increasingly becoming something that I am looking at in the context of cities and communities. But that’s not the topic for today so….
Let’s consider, for a moment, that a thriving economy, like a city, must be a diverse ecosystem. All jobs should be good jobs — pay a living wage, provide benefits and work-life balance — but they can’t be expected to all require the same level of skill or education or expertise. What I’m proposing is a two-prong strategy: while we focus on education to prepare youth for sustaining and stimulating careers, we also need to be developing good jobs across the economic spectrum.
Okay, this isn’t groundbreaking. But here’s what I think is interesting: historically, it’s been manufacturing that provided these good jobs, that allowed folks even without a high school education to join the middle class. And something interesting is happening to manufacturing these days. We all know how the art industry has transformed many former industrial spaces, creating the warehouse district renaissance and factory museum urban landscape that we all recognize. In fact, this weekend I’m going to a creative economy conference, located in one of the great success stories of this genre, Mass MoCA. But Alison Arieff recently wrote this article about something different, about how an industrial economy is becoming increasingly important for the micro-economies of the country, particularly in these same cities that are the hub of the innovation economy, contributing to local prosperity and community pride. The folks she profiles — and other people like the hacker-builders at Artisan’s Asylum — are using industrial buildings and industrial processes not as luxury lofts or as art galleries, but as manufacturing facilities still. The same is true — and, as Arieff mentions, most prevalent — in the food industry, which often locates its “light manufacturing” processes in industrial parks and warehouses. These are low-entry businesses. And they are an essential part of the creative economy.
We’ve already figured out how this trend might be harnessed to produce good jobs in the food industry, with programs like kitchen incubators (though it’s till somewhat unclear how to make these financially sustainable) and food service re-entry programs like Homegirl Cafe and Haley House Bakery Cafe (disclaimer: I worked there). Even the food industry itself, without any specific programs, has developed into an important springboard for immigrant entrepreneurs, young adults, and other folks with barriers to employment: I can’t describe to you the incredible power of working with at-risk teens in a kitchen and watching them find out how to work with their hands and build real skills.
So how can we bring this success back to manufacturing, to open up the creative economy in a way that says it’s more than computer programming and MFA trained artists? Homeboy Industries also has a screenprinting business: what other examples are out there? How can we build this manufacturing industry, not only for good jobs but also for the sake of our built resources and the diversity of our cities, so that they don’t become luxury high-rise and elite consumption and production machines? How can the creatives who are vital for our economy be part of this process, beyond education and festivals? To me, this question, about how to combine a manufacturing/industrial legacy with an innovation future, is the essential one to answer in order for us to begin to develop thriving, resilient, diverse, interesting and equitable cities. (and no, that’s not an overly ambitious goal…)