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A Fracking Concern

They’re going to be making steel in Youngstown again. Taken in isolation, this is great news, pointing to progress in an area that has struggled economically for the past 3-4 decades, and – as the story linked above – points out, lost half its population since 1950.

The steel mill, however, will be producing parts to use in hydraulic fracturing, fracking for short. This process is gaining support in the midwest as a means of economic recovery, through extracting natural gas found in the Marcellus Shale Formation.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube
The old Youngstown Sheet and Tube factory.Photo by bobengland, using a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical 2.0 License.

Much of my interest in writing about this subject comes from a desire to know more about it. Instinctively, I question whether investing in non-renewable energy is the best long-term strategy for any region. There are renewable energy opportunities in Ohio and the Midwest, and places like Austin, Texas are investing in clean energy manufacturing, which might put them even further ahead in the long run.

Lending more support to the clean energy apporach is the increasing number of signs that solar energy will be price competitive soonthis map says in about 12 years for the major Ohio cities, and sooner for much of the rest of the United States. Cities and regions that are investing now are likely to have a leg up going forward.

Leaving the economy aside for a moment, there are serious environmental concerns about the process (Wikipedia has a well-sourced list, and the pros-cons are well-debated here), most of which would have their effect felt close to home. The public health and safety concerns of residents shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.

Deindustrialization of Youngstown is well-document, and I can’t begin to understand the affect this has had on the region. Coming from a region with a resource-heavy economy that has experienced booms and busts in my lifetime, I can empathize. The immediate economic returns of resources – in particular energy – are hard to resist. Given the history of the past few decades, and in light of the recession of the past few years, I don’t fault any citizen or city in that region for jumping at a possibility for economic growth.

But resources and their boom/bust cycles cause instability, and I think most citizens want predictable, reliable economic growth. Would clean/green industry, or other paths to economic development be a better investment in the long run? There are lots of possibilities for the Midwest, and many urban enthusiasts – including myself and the author of this excellent post – have been pleasantly surprised by what we found when visiting cities like Cleveland. Fracking might be the option right now, but I’m thinking a bright future for former industrial centers may come from other sources.

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The Death and Rebirth of Industry and Manufacturing

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back

Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown

Industrial jobs are not dead. Certainly, many have been lost – shipped overseas, lost to the great recession, or eliminated due to automation or increased efficiency. To follow the dominant public narrative, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking industrial jobs in North America are a relic of the 20th century. Whether it’s the conversion of former ports and industrial lands to residential/commercial space and amenities, the hollowing out of former industrial centers in the Midwest, or pop culture narratives from artists like Bruce Springsteen, the focus has been on what’s been lost, not what’s been preserved, enhanced, and created.

“We have a PR problem”

One of the panelists in the Industrial 2.0 session noted this, that people don’t realize industry still offers well-paying jobs in growth sectors. Keynote speaker Roland Martin, of Fortune 200 Company Illinois Tool Works, echoed this. Dan Swinney of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council noted that not one career counselor he spoke to would refer a kid to a manufacturing job. As I tweeted yesterday, I was surprised to find out that manufacturing is one of the 5 fastest growing industries in Chicago. The other 4 – health, education, hospitality, and culinary – feel rather intuitive, but manufacturing came as a surprise.

Industry and manufacturing is changing, not disappearing entirely. My belief is that the misconception also comes in part from the fact that many of the most recognizable household items – things and brand names we come across regularly – are manufactured (entirely or in part) overseas. We’re much more aware of kitchen items that say ‘Made in China’ than we are about automotive or electronic parts whose origin we’ll never seen branded. For example, Roland Martin spoke about how and where in the United States his company manufactures parts for the iPhone and electronic devices. My home region of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has an economy driven in large part by the production of oil field parts and supplies. Most consumers will never encounter these in their everyday life.

My inference from listening to the panelists and keynote speakers is that manufacturing and industrial jobs will continue to exist, but they’re going to continue to evolve and change. You can still have a successful, productive career in this sector, but what’s required to do so is different than 50 years ago. Instead of learning the trade of one factory, or aspect of an industry, core competencies and skills that can serve one well in different types of manufacturing will be key. It’s going to be less about learning a specific, rote task, and more about having skills that allow one to adapt and evolve, just as industry and manufacturing do.

Government and education policies need to align with, and encourage this. Panelists talked about land banking, repurposing of old industrial lands, and other strategies governments are pursuing successfully at the macro level for a region. It’s now time to apply those same principles to the current and future industrial/manufacturing work force, ensuring they thrive alongside the industry.