Micheline Maynard, writing for the Atlantic Cities:
All over the Midwest, cities and towns are embracing new growth in their traditional industries with relief and delight. In northern Minnesota, iron ore has made a comeback. In Youngstown, Ohio, a new $650 million steel plant is under construction. The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce has launched a new effort called MICHauto, devoted to “promoting, retaining and growing” Michigan’s auto industry. But I’m concerned that this “renaissance” may ultimately do more harm than good to the future of our industrial cities and states.
Maynard wants cities to look forward to the next big thing, not the big thing that was. But for cities and states devastated by deindustrialization, that’s not easy. Take my hometown of West Bend, Wisconsin. Since the mid-1990s, three major employers—some would say the three major employers—have left or been dismantled. All were manufacturing companies, much like in Michigan and Ohio.
Many people who probably would have worked in those factories have started small businesses. And good for them. They specialize in things like retail, construction, landscaping, or small manufacturing. And they did well—until the economy tanked. As small businesses in volatile industries, they didn’t have the resources to weather a years-long economic downturn.
So I can understand why places like Michigan would want to woo the car companies, or Ohio the steel mills. Cars and steel may not be the most stable industries, but they’re certainly more reliable than construction or landscaping. If you have a workforce that’s already trained for those kinds of jobs, why pass up the opportunity?
Which brings up a point that Maynard mentions, but doesn’t dwell on—education.
The reliance on industry as a career is still so psychologically strong that fewer than one in five of Michigan’s young people have the preparation they need to go to college, according to its governor, Rick Snyder.
For regions to move beyond their old, stand-by industries, they need a flexible workforce. And that requires training and education. Cities and states can dream all they want, but it’ll be for nothing if they don’t invest in education. That would be a big economic miscalculation.