Just how gritty are we anymore?
When it comes to adjectives, few get connected with Tacoma more frequently than the word “gritty.” It’s a compliment here. While Seattle explodes with tech companies and new money, Tacoma hangs onto its Grit City moniker as a badge of blue-collar honor.
We like to consider ours a working-class city, a place with dirt under its fingernails and a cold beer waiting for us at quitting time. It’s a humble and proud image, and one we cling to tightly.
So it was no particular surprise that when the University of Washington Tacoma announced plans this month to unveil a W statue at the top of the campus’s grand staircase this summer, there was a predictable T-Town twist.
“UW Tacoma’s new installation will be eight feet tall and made of steel, setting it apart from the other W statues on UW campuses and giving it a distinctly Tacoman feel,” boasts the UWT release for “Project W,” part of the branch campus’ 25th anniversary celebration.
UW Seattle has a giant bronze W welcoming students and visitors at its main entrance; UW Bothell has a similarly made one. But, here in Tacoma, we’re grittier ... so we get steel. Makes sense.
Except it might not. At least not anymore.
At the risk of hurting a few feelings, Tacoma’s continuing grit — or at least the kind of grit a family can sustain itself on — is increasingly overstated. As Martin Wurm, an economics professor at Pacific Lutheran University told the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber’s annual Horizons Economic Forecast breakfast earlier this year, the blue-collar jobs we pride ourselves on are being replaced by low-wage service jobs.
Even more image-shaking? Wurm suggested that blue-collar jobs aren’t coming back.
The 2014 Major Employers list compiled by the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County shines light on this reality. As you’d expect, Joint Base Lewis-McChord tops the list of 2014 employers by a significant margin, with 66,054 military employees. Local public schools are next, followed by health care giants MultiCare and Franciscan, and government employers at the state, county and city level.
Boeing comes in at No. 12, one behind the Emerald Queen Casino. And Fred Meyer, Walmart, Safeway and Costco all employed more people last year than the longshore labor union or Milgard Manufacturing.
Wurm went on to tell the crowd that young men in Pierce County, ages 16-24, are increasingly choosing to drop out of the labor force. “The risk is that certain individuals could be simply sidelined in this county,” he warned.
That’s bad news, both for our county and our view of ourselves here in Tacoma. While it’s unrealistic to expect the economy of yesterday to be the economy of tomorrow, trading good-paying blue-collar jobs for low-wage service jobs will hurt more than our cherished image. It’s part of a spiral of increasing inequality that’s swallowing the middle class and furthering the divide between haves and have-nots.
Fittingly enough, one of the first answers to this dilemma likely resides at the very place where the new steel W will call home — UWT, and institutions like it across the region.
In an interview after this year’s Horizons breakfast, Wurm explained that he views the problem with Pierce County’s economy to be structural. People need more education, he said.
That is obvious. Increasing access and opportunity to education for all parts of our population is a must, and it has to come at a price that doesn’t mortgage young people’s future. Skyrocketing tuition costs and predatory student loans work against this goal. The well-worn American bootstraps narrative only works if people are provided a realistic opportunity to better themselves.
Wurm also argued Pierce County needs more businesses with good jobs. The emphasis there is mine. And while it might not always fit our beloved self-image, whether these jobs are of the classic blue-collar variety or not really doesn’t matter much. What matters is that the jobs pay well, and that there are enough of them to keep local talent in house.
So, should we make that giant W at UWT out of something else?
I say let’s keep the steel — and our pride in our gritty past.
But let’s also keep our focus on the challenges of the future.