You’ll note that, unlike some candidates, I’m not talking a whole lot about bringing new jobs to Saginaw – whether they’re green, blue or red.
Here's why: Focusing too much on “bringing new jobs to Saginaw” is part of what led us astray the last 20 or 30 years.
That’s not to say I’m not concerned with economic development; that would be biting the hand that puts food on my family's table. But I advocate a thoughtful approach to economic development with an understanding of three important things:
An Obsolete Model
First, the prevailing wisdom for decades has been “create jobs, and people will move into your community.” And that hasn’t been true since Levittown was built.
In the first half of the 20th century, residents followed jobs. Increasing mobility has changed that.
For the last 50 years, jobs have followed residents.
We’ve seen it up close – in Saginaw Township, Thomas Township and, even today, in Kochville and Tittabawassee Townships. Residential development comes first. It’s followed by retail and service businesses to serve the “new” population center. And that’s followed by other businesses who piggyback on the growth.
That “create jobs, get people” model has also fallen victim to NIMBY. One hundred years ago, if you built an industrial facility, hundreds of houses would spring up across the street.
Nobody wants to live by an industrial facility today.
The “jobs first” approach is a good strategy if you want to turn your city into an industrial park. But then, who wants to live in one of those?
Make your community a place where people want to live. Jobs will follow.
The Jobs Scapegoat
Second, it’s easy to lay the blame for Saginaw’s problems – and, most obviously, its 28-percent poverty rate – on a scarcity of jobs.
But you need to remember that every weekday morning, Saginaw’s population increases by 18 percent … as nearly 11,000 people who live outside the City enter it to go to work.
So you can see the problem isn’t entirely that there aren’t jobs here. It’s a much more complicated interplay of several factors.
As quality of life has declined in many Saginaw neighborhoods, people who could afford to have left. They are, of course, the people with jobs. It would be an interesting exercise to see how many of those 11,000 inbound commuters are former Saginaw residents.
As those with good jobs have left the City, it’s those who are unemployed or underemployed who have been left behind. So while we have lost jobs, it’s the combination of job loss and loss of employed residents that’s hurt us.
Then there is the elephant in the parlor: If we suddenly had 15,000 new jobs spring up in Saginaw, it doesn’t mean the 15,000 people living in poverty will be saved.
We need to recognize that many of those unemployed and underemployed people lack necessary training and skills to be competitive in today’s job market.
You can see this if you look at a graph of Saginaw’s unemployment rate compared to the state’s and the nation’s over the last 30 or 40 years. It’s usually a little higher … but even when we had lots of jobs, we had lots of people without them.
You won't entirely solve Saginaw's "jobs" problems until a larger percentage of our residents are employable. That's something that City Council can only tackle with the help our our educational community. Fortunately, we're now working together better than we have in years.
The Company Town
Third, whatever we do in economic development, it needs to be a balanced, diverse approach.
We can’t hitch our wagons to a one-industry star; one would think we would have learned our lesson on that score.
As breathlessly as the world talks about renewable energy, it still doesn’t have a sustainable business growth model yet. Certain sectors – such as the photovoltaic processing done by Hemlock Semiconductor – are in a major growth stage right now, and we should certainly reap whatever benefits we can from them.
But promising prosperity by turning all our unemployed autoworkers into makers of windmills and solar cells is as dangerous as it is naïve.
Cities that remain strong remain strong by having diverse economies. We can no longer afford to put all our eggs in one basket, no matter how pretty or popular that basket is. Because every basket, eventually, wears out.
The Bottom Line
Yes, we need to bring more jobs to Saginaw. In the short term, that means continuing to work with our economic development partners and creating an environment that's comfortable for business.
But long term? The only way we'll be successful is to make Saginaw a place where highly-skilled, hard-working, well-educated, employable people want to live. Period.