Here is an excerpt from a lengthy “must read” article written by Adam Davidson with additional research by Cameron Bird and Jess Jiang. It is featured in the June (2011) issue of WIRED magazine (Pages 121-143 and 160). It is a part of a Special Report: The Future of Work [Produced with NPR’s Planet Money].
To read the complete article, please click here.
* * *
As the US economy slowly rebuilds and the smoke from four years of charred capital starts to dissipate, we can discern the shape of the next 20 years of job growth. What we see is an economy unlike any we’ve ever known.
The recovery needs to be revolutionary, because our most recent financial meltdown laid bare a fundamental change in the US economy. Since sometime in the 1970s—economists generally agree on the trend, if not the exact date—the US has been increasingly divided into two groups: those whose economic fortunes grow and those whose wages stay stagnant. This divide has many potential causes, including the rise in global trade, technological advances, the decline in unions, and slowing growth in education. But the full impact of these shifts was long masked, first by the stock market bubble and then by a massive credit and housing bubble, which flooded the economy with money we hadn’t really earned. For nearly 20 years we felt richer than we were.
Now, as the economy slowly rebounds, it is doing more than just gaining jobs. By looking closely at data from both government and academic sources, we can see the gradual emergence of a whole new category of middle-class jobs: a realm of work that (given time and luck) could begin to close the chasm in American employment. These new middle-class jobs are what you might call smart jobs. They’re innovative and high tech, but most of them are located far from Silicon Valley or New York. They’re specialized, but that doesn’t mean you need a PhD or even (in some cases) a college degree to get them or to do them well—though they do require some serious training, whether on the job or in a vocational program.
Smart jobs tend to scramble the line between blue-collar and white-collar. Their titles tend toward the white (technician, specialist, analyst), but the underlying industries often tend toward the blue, toward the making of physical stuff. Smart jobs can involve factories and machines, plastics and chemicals, but operating those instruments and manipulating those materials demands far more brains than brawn. Even though some of these jobs are nominally in old-fashioned industries, visit the factories and shops and fields and you’ll find that these industries are in the process of being utterly transformed.
These new, innovative middle-class jobs are cropping up all over the country, in regions where you’d never expect to find them. Dayton, Ohio, is a hot spot for radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, while Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, has become a hub for PVC and synthetic rubber. In information technology, job growth is flourishing from Richmond, Virginia, to Provo, Utah. Once these pockets of innovation gain a foothold, they can grow; the employers subdivide, multiply.
As you might expect, smart jobs tend to cluster in cities—but not always the cities you’d imagine. The same forces of urban renewal that relaunched New York and Boston and San Francisco as bastions of livability during the 1990s have now taken hold in smaller municipalities. Even former industrial cities, without a big college or university, are finding that revived downtowns can help keep their most creative young people from moving away.
Wired has spent six months working with NPR’s Planet Money to investigate the current state of employment as it rebounds from a particularly nasty recession. With 6.5 million more Americans unemployed today than in 2006, it’s still too early to declare an end to our national jobs crisis. But it’s not too early to glimpse the contours of what the recovery will look like. What follows is our attempt to document the currents of job growth that promise, for the first time in two generations, to replenish the ranks of the American middle class.
* * *