There’s a campaign afoot to declare Tacoma “the place for jobs,” launched by business, government and labor leaders with an invitation to the citizenry “to take a stand with us and sign on to the South Sound Prosperity Pledge.”
OK. Yay, jobs.
“We are a coalition of employers, workers, educators and leaders across sectors who believe that the South Sound community is stronger when united around values we all share,” says the message on the Place for Jobs website. “We are seeking a community conversation about what a prosperous South Sound means.”
The driving force behind the effort appears to be as much political as economic — the buzzword du jour “conversation” is a tipoff — seeking to avoid a repeat of the liquid-methanol-plant debacle, which produced more acrimony than employment or plastics feedstock.
But a valid point underlies the campaign, one that has been made in this space before, and to which “community conversation” refers. If traditionally industrial areas such as the Tacoma Tideflats are off limits to industrial development, what do you want to do with them and what do you expect in terms of job generation from them?
That conversation needs to be tempered and informed by reality; “just go get some of those clean-tech jobs” is not a rational plan.
While the community holds that conversation — good luck with keeping the volume low — in an effort to build consensus (ditto), it’s useful to understand where the jobs are now, where they’ve been coming from and where they might be going.
Fortunately, we have the benefit of some job-trend reports from the Employment Security Department that break down the workforce by county as well as industry.
The preliminary workforce count for Pierce County in March was 309,000, up from 300,300 (in this case the definition of workforce leaves out proprietors, the self-employed, members of the military, private household workers and agriculture).
That’s a growth rate of just under 3 percent — not great, King County was 3.6 percent, but not awful (the statewide April-to-April change was 2.3 percent).
Where’d the growth come from? Not manufacturing — it was down by 300 in Pierce County from a year ago, and while the numbers aren’t broken out by subsector, Boeing’s contraction might figure in there.
Here’s a stunner. The big contributor to year-to-year growth in Pierce County was … retail trade.
Yup, the sector that seems to make daily appearances in national business-news columns for announcements of layoffs and store closings is up 3,100 jobs from a year ago. Amazon is a factor in that, but the brick-and-mortar folks are too.
Also up in the year-to-year calculations were educational and health care services (that’s a single category, although two subcategories, hospitals and ambulatory care, are listed as adding jobs) and professional and business services.
If you want an insight into the disparity between King and Pierce counties, and not just in size, consider this: Employment in the information sector (which includes software) in King County was 98,600. For Pierce County, it was 2,600.
The Employment Security Department also puts together a monthly spreadsheet that compares online job postings to unemployment insurance claims to get a sense of the gap between supply and demand for certain job titles and occupations.
It can be broken down into regional markets, such as Pierce County. If you’re in the health care field locally, the data say you’re golden; there’s a huge deficit of supply. But there’s an overabundance of you if you fall into the construction, managerial, office and administrative, and production categories.
That last one sounds odd, given what we’re hearing from the manufacturing sector about the challenges of finding trained or trainable workers. But that highlights a limitation about jobs numbers — they don’t tell the complete story.
This problem plagues not just the local jobs debate but also the national (dare we say it) conversation about employment haves and have-nots. How many jobs you have matters, but where they are, what they pay and what specific skills and education those jobs require matter too, sometimes even more.
A new software job in Seattle might numerically replace a lost furniture-plant job in the South, but it’s not of much use to the worker who doesn’t live here and isn’t trained to write code.
And from there we leap into still more conversations about how we set up our education system to train people for the jobs we’re realistically going to have, not the ones we wish for, and how much we’re willing to pay to land even those.
That’s a lot of conversation we’re in for, and with no certainty of resolving those issues no matter how high-minded the chattering or how hoarse everyone winds up.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.