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Our Evanston legislators at Manufacturing Day last week endorsed the theory that there are many good factory jobs left unfilled for want of qualified applicants.

Sugar & Spice Extraordinary Sweet Treats bakers Elias Saenz and Jesus Alcarac work at the company’s Greenleaf Street facility during last week’s Manufacturing Day tour.

Our Evanston legislators at Manufacturing Day last week endorsed the theory that there are many good factory jobs left unfilled for want of qualified applicants.

But, as I indicated yesterday, there’s not much evidence that this “skills gap” exists. Accepting the industry’s agenda at face value, though, has important policy implications – at the national level and here in Evanston.

Although factories are no longer a reliable source for good jobs, the “skills gap” mythology helps promote taxpayer subsidies for manufacturers. That’s been just as true here in Evanston as it has been across the country.

In 2010 Evanston-based Ward Manufacturing received $700,000 in TIF funds from the City; company officials indicated they’d be creating new jobs in Evanston and would look at “employing out-of-school youths.”

Those TIF dollars, Mayor Tisdahl claimed at Manufacturing Day last year, resulted in many new jobs at Ward for Evanston residents. But in fact Ward (at least as of last year) had made no new hires since it had received the City’s money, and had no Evanston residents at all employed there.

If it’s jobs we want, throwing money at manufacturers looks like a losing proposition. At the least, when businesses promise jobs in exchange for taxpayer investment, we should follow up to see whether those jobs have been created, whether they’ve been filled by Evanston residents, and what rates of pay they’re providing.

City officials should demand honest answers and provide accurate information to the public, so citizens can assess whether such subsidies are worthwhile. And let’s ensure that such agreements allow the City to recoup some of that taxpayer investment if businesses fail to meet their part of the bargain.

The “skills gap” also fuels much of the focus on vocational education, especially as an answer for jobless young people who lack college degrees. Greater access to vocational training that provides a pathway to productive employment is clearly needed.

But, as manufacturing continues to contract, we should be wary of training programs (financed by taxpayers or by jobseekers themselves) geared toward factory placements. Specialized programs that offer little certainty of employment, or lead to jobs that pay no better than positions at Starbucks, may not be the best use of scarce public or personal funds.

We may well be better served by increasing our commitment to our public schools to ensure that more teenagers graduate with solid reading and math skills and basic “job readiness” qualifications.

As stewards of our public funds, our legislators should challenge company executives at events like Manufacturing Day about what they are doing to address the “skills gap.”

If they’re really desperate for workers, are employers providing any on-the-job training themselves? It remains commonplace for some segments of the American economy – law firms, financial institutions, consulting companies – to take on inexperienced hires; it’s sound business practice because such on-the-job training simply cannot be matched in a classroom.

Manufacturers now provide far less in-house training than they once did. Instead of blaming the public schools, and assuming taxpayers should foot the bill for vocational programs, companies should step up and provide such apprenticeship opportunities again.

But the fact remains that manufacturing employment is projected to diminish, and fewer of those remaining jobs offer a ticket into the middle-class.

If we are concerned with providing better prospects for Evanston residents, especially those unable to attain college degrees, we need to focus on where job opportunities actually exist and look at what we might do to create good jobs here, or make our bad jobs better ones.

It’s worth remembering that factories used to be characterized by low wages and horrid conditions. That didn’t change until workers formed unions, demanded better, and galvanized public support for improved conditions.

Evanston, like most of America, is now seeing growth in the service industry, in restaurant work here especially. Wages for these jobs often barely lift workers above the poverty line.

Our progressive city could become a leader in the effort to reshape this reality. Surely Evanstonians want decent wages for all workers here, and would wish to support those businesses that provide them. Why not explore a living wage ordinance that would make sense for Evanston? Other cities, like San Jose and Albuquerque, have adopted them recently.

Short of that, why not a city-sponsored campaign to acknowledge – and encourage customers to patronize – those establishments that are doing the right thing by their employees?

Here in Evanston three “anchor” institutions – Northwestern and our two hospitals – are our largest employers; they employ people at the highest, and lowest, skill levels.

What about crafting an initiative that would facilitate job placement for Evanston residents, especially in entry-level positions, at these places? Cities like New Haven are doing just that.

We could try something bold, like creating a worker-owned cooperative enterprise, as they’ve done in Cleveland. Or we could reconsider the most efficient job-creation strategy of all – and simply put more people on the city payroll, performing work that needs doing around Evanston. That shouldn’t be off the table as long as taxpayer subsidies to businesses remain on it.

In Evanston we’ve got so much to be proud of — our reputation for progressive innovation, our compassion for our neighbors, and our commitment to diversity.

We can and should do more for our residents who are jobless or struggling to pay their bills on the wages they earn.

So let’s adopt a new vision of economic development that puts our people first, that focuses on where employment really is now and will be in the future, that facilitates slotting Evanston residents into those occupations quickly, and that is committed to ensuring that all Evanston jobs are good jobs.  

Toni Gilpin holds a Ph.D in American History from Yale University and maintains an abiding interest in labor and economic issues. She’s a graduate of ETHS and has lived in Evanston with her husband, Gary Isaac, and two daughters since 1996. She currently teaches American History for the Odyssey Project at the Howard Area Community Center, and is the former Executive Director of the Democratic Party of Evanston.

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5 Comments

  1. Look at the record

    How can we expect the Evanston economy to be sound, pay its bills, pays its pensions, take care of taxpayer needs and attract people when:

    1. We lost so much manufacturing–so much for the blue collar workers.

    2. Lost retail business—so much for clerical staffing.  Remember the department stores [o.k. some chains folded on their own], electronics, shoe, applicance, men/womens speciality clothing stores.  No 'gifts' should have been needed—just stable government policy and the Council paying attention to the economy instead of searching for windmills [pun intended but applies literally and figuretively].

    3. Have rents and regulations so high that only start-ups can afford to 'start-up.'  Then they have to move.  So much for NU/other grads.

    4. Railing against NU, hospitals—so much for the highly educated wanting to move to and/or work in Evanston.  They might as well pick Wilmette, Skokie or with Metra any number of other suburbs.

    5. Stable and well planned economy instead of the off-the wall idea of the day, threatened taxes/regulations/fees

    6. to 100. Could easily be filled in.

    Oh yes, the city will fight for every arts group, preservation movement, restriction on what owners can do with their property.  Not a lot of revenue from theses. And of course figuring out what businesses THEY pick as winners and give gifts to—how much could the Trader Joes $2,000,000 done for a real economic need or tax relief ?

  2. What’s Possible in Evanston

    I want to respond to Anonymous’ comment with a some more history and a few more statistics (I like ‘em). It’s absolutely correct that Evanston’s manufacturing base has declined precipitously – nearly 40% in the last ten years. That loss has helped hollow out Evanston’s middle class, since those jobs once provided well-paying work that didn’t require advanced education to obtain. Evanston’s largest employer through the first half of this century, in fact, was the Clayton Mark factory that once stood where the Dempster-Dodge plaza is now. But again, it’s worth remembering that factory jobs, at first, were poorly-paid and dangerous. It was not employer largesse, or increased educational attainment among employees, but the rise of industrial unions that changed that – from the 1940s on Clayton Mark employees were members of the United Auto Workers. For workers lacking higher education, unionization has been the key difference that distinguished between work that affords decent pay and benefits and work that doesn’t.  Since the segments of our economy that are growing are those that are generally non-union, to rebuild our middle class we’re either going to need to wait until those occupations get organized too – or figure out ways to make things better in advance of that (hence my suggestions).

    And I do think the circumstances make that possible in Evanston. Our population actually increased between 2000-2010, and we also added jobs, and given that took place during the worst years of the recession that’s impressive and demonstrates that Evanston is a desirable place to be. Fewer of the jobs here in Evanston are held by Evanston residents than was the case ten years ago, however. The problem – if we want to maintain diversity here, at any rate – is that the jobs we’ve added have been within white-collar professions, like finance and information technology, which require at least college education (and which pay comparatively well). We’ve also added jobs in retail (a growing sector, now, actually) and especially in food service and restaurant work – and those jobs do not, as a rule, pay well or offer good benefits. Like so much of America, here in Evanston we’ve lost too many of those jobs in the middle that pay decently but don’t demand advanced degrees. For most of its history, Evanston had a rock-solid middle-class (a good portion of it African-American).  If we can’t turn that around, we will continue to lose that vital component of our community, and we’ll become a very different place in ten or twenty years.

    But I do think that people very much want to move to Evanston, or stay here – folks with lots of money, people with impressive educational credentials, as well as those with much less of either. Our community was built, and its character was shaped, by affluent visionaries along with regular working people who settled down here, bought homes and raised families, and enjoyed all the very good things Evanston offered. I’d like to see Evanston remain such a place of true diversity – economic, racial and ethnic. I think if we commit to that goal as a community we can make it happen.

  3. You are proposing the city sets a wage ordinance?

    Setting a wage ordinance would no doubt  would cause business to leave town, and discourage business to come.

    Dominicks is leaving, will another company buy it, or will it be shut down.  I would guess they may employ well over 100 workers, so those people will be out of work soon.

    I think you miss one point, robots are taking over the jobs, they are even talking that the robots will replace the cheap Chinese workers soon.   Clearly back breaking labor jobs at the low end such as lawn care, and maintenace will existing and continue to pay poorly.

    Industrial jobs will exist in the future, but they will employ less and less workers and more skilled workers.

    About 10 tens ago, a city council members suggested they could create one job, since they need people to copy the city packets.  Most of the council members do not get paper packets they now use their lap tops, at one meeting I heard the mayor joke she would give someone her paper packet. Even the need at the city for low skill labor is disappearing.

    Only the City of Evanston and other units of government will operate in a manner, that creates jobs of little value, since these are the same elected officials who like to give our money away to create manufacturing jobs!

  4. Good articles, but manufacturing may never be the same

    I think the government officials to get them selves elected, have to promise every one a ham, but the reality is many people may never have very well paying jobs.  You are correct the unions created jobs for people, with low skills and gave them good wages, but those jobs disappeared, as the world changed.

    I think the world will continue to change.

    Take a look at journalism in Evanston, the internet, has created news sources like Evanstonnow, 15 years ago you had the Evanston Review as the primary source, you could write a letter to the editor once a week, now you can comment on stories everyday, jobs disappeared at the printers, and distribution of newspaper, also we have seen a drop in journalist jobs.

    Was manufacturing really a huge job source in Evanston? or has a very small job source just gotten ever smaller?  How many manufacturing jobs were here over time in relation to the other jobs?

    Large companies a source of many good jobs now outsource, large numbers of their employees, 30% or more are the norm thus many jobs are disappearing with good benefits. Companies are hiring few and few employees with complete benefits. Most companies have stopped pensions, and health care is harder to get.

    Only governments like the city of Evanston continue to hire most of their employees with complete benefits, since they can continue to tax us, and create pension problems they never will solve, and hide the huge mess they have with their capital program.

    I think we all know we have a world wide economy, and things are going to keep changing to keep pace with the new realities.

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