Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Land of job opportunities

A story in Monday's Des Moines Register rings the too-small-workforce bell yet again. Appearing under the bizarre yet captivating headline "Say hello to big hole in Iowa's workforce," the story explains that our state already has at least 49,000 more jobs than it has workers, a gap that will grow to 150,000 over the next five years.

As someone who is (gainfully, I assure you) self-employed and therefore is always worried that one of these days he'll have to run out and get one of those "real jobs" he hears so much about, I found this to be heartening news. That is, until I got to the charts that ran with the jump. (They're available on the website, but only in teeny-tiny thumbnail JPEG form because the Register's online editors, I assume, are idiots.)

The most telling chart is the one that describes the level of education needed to fill the jobs that will come open over the next year. One-quarter of those jobs require no education whatsoever, and seventy percent of those jobs require no more than a high school education. In other words, Iowa is going to be needing a lot of fast-food clerks, discount store shelvers, prison orderlies and casino dealers over the next year. Wherever are we going to find them?

Iowa economic development officials frequently bemoan the "brain drain" -- the outflow of young people who get an education in Iowa, then move out of state to reap the financial rewards of that education. Those same officials also frequently point to Iowa's worker shortage as something the state can use to lure those young people back here. Just once it'd be nice to see them put two and two together.

Young, educated people move out of the state for two main reasons. The first is simply that they don't want to live in Iowa. There's nothing you can do about that, I'm afraid. If a kid is looking for excitement, he's going to go elsewhere. The second reason, the one germane to our discussion, is that they see opportunities elsewhere that they don't see here. When they look at the Iowa economy, and all they see is one service-sector job after another that pays $22,000 a year, they'd have to be stupid to stay. And they're not stupid.

You know what's pathetic? Utterly, hopelessly, dogshit pathetic? The scene we had a couple weeks back in which a number of Iowa communities went to the state Racing and Gaming Commission to beg and plead for more casino licenses. This is what passes for economic development in much of the state: casinos, prisons, hotels. No one dreams of growing up to be a blackjack dealer, a penitentiary food-service aide, or the night guy at the front desk. All of these jobs are honorable work, but you take these jobs because you have to, not because you want to. If I'm a young person with hopes and dreams and the only work I can see in Iowa is working the window at a slots casino, then I'm getting out of here. I'll go somewhere else. Because if I have to work the window at a casino, I'd rather do it in Las Vegas than What Cheer.

Nobody ever stops to ask: You want to build a casino in some small town in Iowa? Really? Who the hell do you think it's going to serve? You think the high rollers are going to fly in and drop 100 grand? No, your customers -- if you have any -- are going to be locals. Locals spending (we hope) their disposable income in the new casino rather than the restaurant down the street. The big difference being that the restaurant might be locally owned, while I can guarantee you that the casino will not be. So the casino cannibalizes the local economy for a while ... until a bigger and flashier casino opens down the road.

Or you really luck out, and the state decides to put a prison in your town! I told you rapists weren't good for nothing!

So, yes, say "hello" to the big hole in the workforce. Pray that we can scrape together enough illegal immigrants to fill it. Because I want my value meal now!

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