The Labor Day we observe today is a product of the industrial era, first celebrated in 1882 and finally declared a federal holiday in 1894.
We no longer live in the industrial age, though, which raises some provocative and uncomfortable questions about the nature of labor in the post-industrial age. There’s still industry, of course, if by “industry” we mean manufacturing, but that manufacturing is increasingly described as “advanced manufacturing.” One of the biggest employers to locate in the Roanoke Valley in recent years is Eldor, an auto parts maker. One of the reasons it chose Botetourt County was because of the mechatronics program at Virginia Western Community College. When factories are making their location decisions based on the proximity to higher education, that’s a pretty clear sign that the world has changed in some fundamental ways. What does that mean for all the “laborers” we are taking a holiday today to celebrate?
It’s not 1894 anymore. A lot of economic responsibilities that once were on the shoulders of somebody else are now on the shoulders of workers themselves. Even the language we use is outdated. The use of “shoulders” harkens back to the industrial age or even the agricultural age, when strong shoulders (and backs and other body parts) were necessary to get the work done. Finger tips now might be a better analogy.
We’re still not being specific enough, so let’s fix that: Once, the fate of a community’s economy was the responsibility of the town fathers (and in those days they were all; fathers). It was community leaders who were expected to do the things necessary to make the community viable in the economy: To entice the railroad to come through. To build industrial parks. To pitch the community to companies looking to expand or relocate. Workers mostly needed to just show up on time.
All those things still happen, of course. Increasingly, though, companies are making their decisions on where to go based on which communities have the best workforce. The best-known example of this is Amazon. Virginia didn’t offer the biggest financial incentives, but it did offer what Amazon felt was the deepest pool of tech workers – and the promise to create more, largely through Virginia Tech’s “innovation campus” in Alexandria.
This fundamentally changes the dynamics of how the economy works. Once the economy revolved around natural resources – mines, ports, rail and road junctions, and the like. Fixed assets. If you had one of those, it was hard to go wrong. An economy that revolves around a workforce, though, is much trickier — because people are mobile in a way that mines and ports aren’t. Community leaders, be they at the state or local level, still have a lot of responsibility for the fate of the local economy. For the state, that means a well-funded educational system that provides state-of-the-art instruction while keeping tuition low enough to get more students educated. For localities, that means quality-of-life amenities to make a place worth living in. However, there’s also now a lot more responsibility on individual workers. If a community doesn’t have an industrial park — the more contemporary term is “business park” — it’s clear that the responsibility lies with the local governing body to change that. (Cases in point: Botetourt County did that in 1994 with the Greenfield Center where Eldor now is. Franklin County is doing that now with the Summit View business park. Lots of localities did that in 1999 when they set up the Commerce Park in Pulaski County.) But if a community doesn’t have a workforce with sufficient skills to compete in the new economy, whose responsibility is that to fix it? Well, everybody’s — which means some of that responsibility is on individual workers.
Educational attainment is typically used as the measure for the skill level of a workforce. A college degree is not a perfect measure, of course, because it doesn’t fully capture all the skills that can be acquired through career and technical programs in high schools or credentials programs through community colleges. Still, it’s a useful measure for understanding the big-picture problems facing many rural communities today. In Southwest and Southside Virginia, 15.5% of the working-age population has a college degree. That’s an average; in some localities, the figure is in the single digits. In Dickenson County, it’s 9.3%. In Greensville County, it’s 7.5%. Meanwhile, the national average is 34%. In Falls Church, it’s 78%. In Arlington, it’s 74%. That’s why Amazon is going there. Put another way: That’s why lots of other companies aren’t even thinking about coming to rural Virginia. We may think they should. We can talk up our low taxes, our low crime, our scenic views, all the rest, but those things don’t matter as much as we’d like to think they should. There are other reasons, of course, why tech companies aren’t looking in rural America: A monochromatic population doesn’t fit well with companies that pride themselves on diversity. That big Confederate flag flapping in the breeze by Interstate 81 in Rockbridge County sends a signal – and it’s the wrong one. Uncomfortable fact: We are the ones who are often stereotyped as being out of step with America, not the other way around.
There’s not much we as a community can do about some of that, although being more welcoming to those “who aren’t from around here” would be a good start. But there are some things we — you — can do individually. Here’s one big one: Make sure your skills are up to date. That might mean going back to school, be it for a class, a credential or an actual degree. Make sure your kids get skills. That doesn’t have to be a four-year college degree, by the way — some studies say the biggest demand will be for people who have more than a high school diploma but something less than a four-year degree.
You can complain about politicians who aren’t sufficiently aggressive in helping their communities adapt to the new economy. You can complain, if you want, about foreign countries that “steal” our jobs. You can complain, too, about greedy companies that go along. There are certainly plenty of examples in all those categories. But at some point, complaining about the shortcoming of politicians or the wiliness of other countries or the rapaciousness of big corporations is laziness. If, in the new economy, companies are making their decisions based on which communities have the best workforces, then it’s really up to the workers themselves to prepare themselves. So get to it. That’s not necessarily the Labor Day message a lot of people want, but it’s the one they need.