On the bubble

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“We need more jobs around here,” grumbled the owner of the pharmacy where I pick up my meds every month.

“It’s not like it was even ten years ago,” said the waitress at my favorite Kingston diner. “The economy just isn’t coming back the way we all expected it would.”

“Sometimes I think we’re going in the wrong direction,” a hospital employee I ran into at Hannaford’s a couple of days ago admitted. “The smart kids are all leaving, and people have less money to spend. I’m worried.”

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I’m sure you’ve heard on-the-street comments like these, too. When it comes to the good jobs we all want in our community, there aren’t many hopeful signs these days. Yet our political leaders and economic development officials continue to exude optimism. Things are gonna turn around any day now, they say.

Sure they are.

Just-stick-with-it is a message with which I don’t resonate. I’d rather they’d instead admit there’s a problem, that their efforts to solve it are going slower than they’d like, and that just maybe more of us are going to have to work together to find a way to do something about the situation. But that admission would of course suggest that their leadership might have been, and is, less than perfect.

 

“The economic picture is more complex than the current debate may suggest,” a 2012 book by a Berkeley economics professor, Enrico Moretti, said. “America’s labor market is undergoing a momentous shift that is reshaping its economy and its geography. While some sectors and occupations are dying, others are growing stronger. Most of all, the geography of jobs is shifting in profound ways.”

As I’ve written before, Moretti argues persuasively that in the ‘new economy’ the number of places that are successful will continue to decrease. The most successful places, basically, will be the urban concentrations where knowledge-based industries have both a critical mass and access to top-notch academic and research institutions that help them continue to succeed. He terms these industries “the innovation sector.”

It’s not that the labor market is turned around by jobs in the innovation sector. It’s that the jobs created because these jobs exist (“the multiplier effect”) are numerous. They’re the spark that lights the fire. “For each new high-tech job in a city,” he writes, “five additional jobs are created outside high tech in that city in the next ten years.”

What about the growing number of places that don’t make the transition to the new economy? They’re the losers. They fall further and further behind.

It’s important not to be a loser.

“This is why the rise of innovation is so crucial,” explains Moretti. “It is more than just jobs that are at stake. The entire nation’s economy is at stake.”

 

Let’s be optimistic and assume Ulster County can be “on the bubble” (more like the Yankees than the Mets) in terms of the innovation economy. Our assumption must be that the economy could improve markedly with a small increase in performance. How small?

We’re not talking about big numbers. Right now about 28 per cent of the people in Ulster County’s labor force work outside the county (mostly to the south). According to the August statistics, the county’s non-farm labor force increased by 1000 jobs since last August, 400 of whom work outside the county and 600 inside it. I estimate that an increase of as few as 500 new jobs annually in the innovation economy inside the county would make all the difference. But don’t forget the qualifying phrase “in the innovation economy.” Mall jobs, fast-food jobs and tourism jobs don’t count.

This is not an unattainable figure. It does, however, require a focus, a degree of concentration, and a willingness to work together that has not been much in evidence in Ulster County.

As Yogi said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

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