RICK CRAWFORD: Step up to plate
Written by: Rep. Rick Crawford
Published by: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Ever since President Trump took office, the headlines have boasted of a booming economy. With 224,000 jobs added and an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent in May 2019 alone, the economy consistently outpaces even optimistic projections.
While many rural Americans are reaping the benefits of the current market, some cannot help but see discrepancies between these numbers and their daily lives. There are sleepy towns, and then there are towns truly stuck in a rut of losing jobs, businesses, schools, and residents. For these communities, economic growth feels like a far-off notion reserved for shiny metropolitan centers rather than the fields of the heartland. The question before us is: How do we ensure middle America does not become forgotten America?
Manufacturers in my district share with me their struggle of filling dependable, high-paying jobs–even those that do not require a college degree. This is the double-edged sword of low unemployment coupled with a dwindling labor force.
In June 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 7.4 million open jobs across the United States in April, but only 5.9 million hires, leaving nearly 20 percent of open jobs unfilled. As our employers exhaust the local supply of workers, relocating looks increasingly more advantageous. If our communities lose these businesses, our job market will slow down. Infrastructure, schools, and the overall economy will suffer, and residents will look to either move with the jobs or exit the labor force entirely, leaving behind a stagnant community.
While this scenario is playing out in much of rural middle America, the effects can be seen in the national numbers. The population of people 16 years or older in the United States has grown by 11.9 percent since 2006, but the number of people 16 years or older participating in the labor market has dropped from 65 percent to 63.4 percent. This drop in the labor force is a blow on its own, but its damages are exacerbated by the fact that the industries actually experiencing growth are not economic heavyweights.
Between 2006 and 2009, Retail Trade and Manufacturing held the second and third spots for No. 1 employers in the United States behind Health Care and Social Assistance in first place. Between 2010 and 2016, Accommodation and Food Services knocked out Manufacturing for the No. 3 spot. This means that since the end of the recession, 23 percent of all U.S. employees can be found working in retail stores, hotels, or restaurants.
What are the practical implications of these statistics? If we want to see real economic change, we have to see growth in industries that build careers and lifelong productivity. We cannot have nearly a quarter of our labor force working in jobs that often pay by the hour and generally do not create dynamic and sustainable economies.
But first, we need to get to the root of the problem and ensure we are developing a diverse and skilled work force prepared to rise to the challenge of changing industry and meet the demands of our existing employers. There are jobs to be had, but we are not prepared to fill them. Our problems cannot be solved by the conventional economic Band-Aids of a few large employers or government grants. Instead, we need to spark sustainable creativity and innovation in our own communities.
Because much of the 1st District of Arkansas finds itself in this cycle of limited resources and limited access, I’ve worked with my team to develop strategies for addressing these economic hurdles. We created the DREAM (Delta Regional Economic Advancement Mission) Council–a committee of leaders and educators who meet periodically to discuss building up the labor force by investing in students and pursuing a variety of industries.
I host an annual STEM tour that invites teachers to meet different manufacturers and STEM employers so they are better prepared to educate their students on opportunities in our district. I’ve started conversations about some of the forces perpetuating economic struggle by hosting roundtables with law enforcement, health-care professionals, and educators to discuss the opioid crisis that is dragging down so many of our communities. This summer, I am exploring programs that might tap into the neglected skills of the formerly incarcerated population, recognizing the universal benefits of enabling these individuals to be productive members of society after paying their time.
While I’m excited about what we are doing in our district, this game is not one we can win in Washington without the help and initiative of folks back home. The trick is not to hit a home run every time we step up to the plate, but to think of new ways to get a player on base. What can our schools do to set our students up for success? What can our businesses do to expand the existing labor force? What can our communities do to continue to push our economy forward in innovation?
If we are going to ensure that our district enjoys the success of the national economic boom, we must all step up to the plate.