Ready for the big push?

By and large, it’s probably better to have a low-paying job that no job at all. And in bad times the few jobs that are available out there are more likely to be low-paying than not.

Preliminary employment numbers from the state labor department estimate that there were 60,200 non-farm jobs in Ulster County this August as compared to 60,100 in July and 59,100 in August a year ago. At least one can say that the overall numbers are going in the right direction.

The trouble is that ten years ago — in August 2003 — Ulster County had 63,700 non-farm jobs. Like the majority of places in the nation, Ulster County is still below its pre-recessionary job totals. That’s not great.

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All the job growth in Ulster County for the past two years — and then some — was in two low-wage industry groups, trade and tourism. The leisure and hospitality industry (tourism) accounted for 700 additional jobs, and the trade, transportation and utilities category (trade) was responsible for a growth of 600 jobs. The sum of all other industries was in negative territory.

As of May 2012, according to federal data, the annual mean wage of all Ulster County workers was $41,750. Wages for most of the lower categories of retail trade workers ranged between $20,000 and $25,000. Cashiers averaged $19,940 and retail salespersons $24,500. The wages of leisure and hospitality workers was not dissimilar. Maids and housekeepers in Ulster County averaged annual wages of $27,800 and food preparation and service workers averaged $24,130.

Although Ulster County officials at the county and the municipal levels have given lip service to economic development, they have neither the tools nor the knowledge to be of substantial assistance in job creation. Ulster County would like in its dreams to be a hotbed of economic innovation, but it isn’t. The questions are whether it could be and how it would get there.

Economic ecosystem

“The New Geography of Jobs” is a thoughtful little volume that addresses these questions. The book, written by Berkeley economics professor Enrico Moretti, has caused a minor sensation in academic and business circles since its publication last year. Sojourner Truth Library on the SUNY New Paltz campus has a single copy that is in general circulation and has been taken out twice.

“A company’s success depends on more than just the quality of its workers,” writes Moretti. “It also depends on the entire ecosystem that surrounds it.”

Local American labor markets have been diverging in job creation in the past 25 years or so, according to Moretti, and they are diverging at an accelerating rate. Knowledge industries that require highly educated workers with specialized skills are clustering in a limited number of metropolitan areas, leaving the have-nots out in the cold.

Moretti thinks that about 15 or 20 of the 280 metro in the nation will make the cut, adding jobs at an increasing rate. A larger number of metro areas are in the category of those that will fail. And the rest he describes as being “on the bubble,” where success or failure is in doubt.

For those metros on the bubble or below, a strategy for success, what Moretti calls “the big push,” is imperative. The big push is a coordinated policy that brings skilled workers, educational institutions, employers, government and specialized support services together at one time. Easier to say than to do.

Guess what? Kingston, New York is not one of the metros that are successful now or are likely to become successful. The present stagnation of the size of the labor force and its slow but increasing dependence on dead-end jobs are only two symptoms of that. There are many others.

State control, local credit

Kingston may not have read the Moretti book, but Albany may have. State encouragement of regional thinking through various new organizational forms and incentives are not just window dressing. The regional economic development councils are struggling to put together the regional plans that the individual counties, ever ready to compete as warring principalities devoted to bringing the bacon home for themselves alone, are unlikely to provide.

Finishing its third round of annual funding, the seven-county lower Hudson Valley economic development region (Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Sullivan, Orange, Dutchess and Ulster) is beginning to cohere. While reserving for itself control over the allocation of resources, the state is willing to pretend that the locals are making the actual decisions. The locals fight over the scraps and claim credit for the outcomes. This is the new geography of jobs in action.

Sandwiched between New York City, which will make the national cut as an innovation hub, as evidenced by the number of jobs increasing considerably faster than at the national rate, and Albany, the only place in the state where a huge governmental push has propelled a region to the status of being on Moretti’s bubble, the Hudson Valley as a region may have unique opportunities. But if Moretti is correct, it has a long uphill path ahead of it.

 

There is one comment

  1. John Mallen

    This is an incisive post. It can be read as a sad lament on local leadership, or the lack thereof. Quite interesting that none of the local or regional leadership have commented.

    So Geddy what do we do with this? I was going to write that we should get this piece into the hands of our key elected and appointed leaders. But then, I thought, “They probably won’t care.” The status quo serves them just fine.

    One could make a case for saying that a sound policy would be better transportation to the City and Albany hubs? Maybe such is already taking place – though slowly, with a combination of digital commuting from a Mid Hudson home office and travel to the office as needed, but not every day. Maybe that will help attract a group of new residents who will become visionary leaders in the future.

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