Photo by wisaflcio on Flickr.

Training is often touted as the solution to the growing skills mismatch that separate the jobless from growth sectors like health care.  But training is an unrealistic solution when 36% of DC residents are functionally illiterate

As we move to a post-industrial economy, are the jobs that had previously provided avenues to the middle class for less educated Americans simply gone and not coming back?

Not so, says Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class.  Florida has shifted his research to focus on those left out in the cold by the decline in industrial jobs and rise of the knowledge economy.  A recent Atlantic article lays out Florida’s solution.

"A big part of the answer”, writes Florida, “lies in upgrading service class jobs — the largest class of jobs in virtually every advanced industrial nation”:


Job growth in the United States. Image from Creative Class Exchange.


These jobs, primarily in leisure, hospitality and personal care, are rapidly growing as a share of the total jobs.  The growing creative class of knowledge workers have higher incomes and demand more and better services. 

Hence the growth of education and health care services, at the high end, and leisure, hospitality and personal care services, at the low end.  Both types of services are producing jobs faster than any other sector in the District.  The latter, lower-end services are performed by what Florida calls service class workers. 


Job growth in DC. Figures in millions,

Despite this, no one thinks of them as a solution to unemployment because they are usually crappy jobs - low-wage, dead-end jobs with few benefits.

But factory jobs were also crappy jobs a century ago, argues Florida.  As millions of workers left the farms people wondered who would employ them, and the only solution were low-wage, dead-end manufacturing jobs.

By the end of WWII, these crappy jobs were the pathway to the middle class.  Thanks to unions and to the professionalization of management, factory jobs became higher value jobs that were more highly compensated.

As evidence that service class jobs are being upgraded in the same way, Florida points to the 20 firms employing primarily service workers on the Fortune list of 100 best companies to work for.  In the top 10 are Wegmans, Zappos.com and REI.

There are three steps that Mayor Gray should take to help DC’s jobless get and retain good service class jobs.

Expand transit links across the Anacostia to leverage the city’s natural advantages 
Unlike lots of jobs that have been outsourced, service class jobs are primarily done in person with end customers.  That means service class workers have to commute to the neighborhoods where their customers live. 

Factory jobs are usually located away from residential areas.  While manufacturing has never been a large part of Washington’s economy, much of America’s present sprawl and auto-dependency is attributable to the zoning of neighborhoods by single use (residential, commercial, industrial) in response to the rise of factories.

Because service jobs are usually done in person, cities have a natural advantage in employing their service class residents.  In fact, service class workers before the rise of manufacturing often lived in alleys directly behind the homes of wealthier residents.

The District should be leveraging this natural advantage by improving transit links across the Anacostia River to economically integrate the city.  Metro, like other transit systems that arose in the 70s in Atlanta and San Francisco, exists primarily to shuttle suburban workers in and out of the city.  Mayor Gray and DDOT Director Bellamy should increase their investment in the Circulator and Streetcar routes that shuttle District workers to District jobs. 

Look for soft skills training models that work
Mayor Gray often points to the new Community College of DC as an example of his investment in training.  While the training provided by CCDC is helpful for jobs in the growing health care field such as nursing assistants, the District’s service class needs primarily soft skills training.  Instead of focusing exclusively on technical intelligence for particular careers, we need to also focus on social intelligence for service class workers.

Lack of these soft skills is the barrier that keeps less educated workers from getting and keeping leisure, hospitality and personal care jobs.  The Department of Employment Services (DOES) and the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development should find models for soft skills training that work.

Perhaps DOES could pay for soft skills case workers to connect clients with service class jobs and then meet regularly with the worker and their manager on-site to discuss their performance.  This would effectively provide free training and personnel management for employers, and would target the specific skills mismatch that keeps service class workers jobless.

Target firms with good service class jobs for attracting to the District
Service class jobs will become better jobs the same way factory jobs became better jobs - re-engineering of workers’ jobs to address demand for better quality from customers and better pay from workers.

DC’s rapidly growing, well-paid class of knowledge workers increasingly demand more and better quality services in food, personal care and home care, and leisure.  We need to build up a class of service sector managers who are skilled at re-engineering service processes and positions in order to meet these demands.

Ultimately it’s these managers who will circulate between service sector firms in DC and make the District a center of excellence in services.  Targeting those service providers in the 100 best companies to work for to attract to DC will build up this cadre of managers in the city who then make other service sector firms in DC great places to work.

It’s a source of shame that 30% of our workers are out-of-work and 30% of our children live in poverty.  Until this third of our city is lifted up, we cannot speak of progress in any other area. 

While many talk about unemployment, few provide specific solutions.  Whether one agrees with Florida or not, let’s join him in offering specific solutions to the challenge rather than reiterating common platitudes.

Tagged: dc, jobs, unemployment

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.