Where are the jobs? Literally, where are the jobs?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

You don’t need to be an economist to recognize that the economy of the Greater Puget Sound area is growing – perhaps as much as it ever has. And we all, businesses, employers and job-seekers should be thankful. An expanding economy  reaches almost everyone.

But you don’t have to travel very far to see where the jobs aren’t.

In the fiscal year ending this past August, the U.S. economy added over 1.7 million jobs. But only 38,000 of those new jobs found their way to rural counties. More than two-thirds of the new jobs were located in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, those with more than a million people.

Local urban centers – like Seattle and Bellevue have had nearly out of control growth, while outlying areas – especially those beyond a manageable commute – continue to empty out.

On a nationwide basis, rural America had 12.9 percent of the nation’s jobs in August 2018 but only gained 2.2 percent of the jobs created in the previous 12 months.

Jefferson County for example, has an unemployment rate of about 5%, while Mason County had a rate or 6%. That compares to an unemployment rate of about 3% in Seattle. That difference might not seem like much, but consider that the unemployment rate in Mason County is literally double the rate in Seattle.

There was an old saying that a “good” job, say one at Boeing, supported three corollary jobs – those at restaurants, car dealers and many more.

That was probably true, but what is even more true is that over time, a decade or two, or even more, long term investments and expansions are based where they make the most economic sense.

Yes, land and office space would be cheaper in small towns and rural areas, and some areas, like Sumner, see continual expansion in warehousing and manufacturing jobs.

The old cliche about real estate still holds that there are three key principles to success; location, location and location. It turns out that this is also true for hiring and business expansion.

It seemed crazy at the time, but several years ago when Jeff Bezos was establishing the headquarters of Amazon, he had one uncompromising requirement – it had to be in downtown Seattle.

He was looking for a vibe, a pulse, a home, an identity. And he found it. Amazon found Seattle and Seattle found Amazon.

As I talk to business owners and entrepreneurs in Pierce County, I am struck by the same thing – the vast majority of small and beginning business owners WANT to be here.

Pierce County has affordable space – and access to transportation – and The Port of Tacoma – and several other essential ingredients for a successful regional – if not global – business.

An old model of success used to be the monopoly. If you had the only business in a limited market, your success was all but guaranteed.

It turns out that almost the exact opposite is true. Have you ever been to a neighborhood recognized, if not famous for its “themed” neighborhoods? I love going to areas with a defined focus; maybe several bookstores or restaurants or an arts district.

When I lived in Beijing, China, one of my favorite areas was called “Book city” – it had an emphasis on anything related to books – printing, publication, graphic arts, art supplies and of course, books for sale.

Tacoma has a theater district and a museum district. And Ruston Way, against all expectations a generation ago, has become an established restaurant and entertainment district.

The sum of each neighborhood is far more than just the total of its parts.

The same is true of a healthy community – the more one business thrives, the more other businesses will be welcome and also thrive.

As Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello often puts it “We all do better when we all do better.”

The more diverse and multi-faceted a community is, the more interesting and appealing – and enduring – it will be.

I took this photo in October of 2018, but it could have been 20 years ago. Or maybe 20 years from now. Photo: Morf Morford
I took this photo in October of 2018, but it could have been 20 years ago. Or maybe 20 years from now. Photo: Morf Morford

I had a revelation about Tacoma recently. Many cities have clearly identifiable skylines; New York’s harbor with our Statue of Liberty, Seattle’s Space Needle and many more.

Tacoma, primarily thanks to its terrain, doesn’t have a singular, defined skyline.

The view from the freeway is not very revealing of what Tacoma holds.

I’ve always like the view from the top of Pacific Avenue looking down on the city center. And the view from the cable bridge is cool but there is not a good place to stop and take it in.

I love the global views of Tacoma (ever look down on Tacoma from an aircraft?) and I like the occasional territorial views of the city, the bay or the mountain, but my favorite is probably the walking, human-scaled view from the street. This  is where people live (sometimes literally) and work and roam around.

This is where we see people face to face, where work is done, where action – by any definition – happens.

You can read the pulse, sense and energy of a neighborhood by what you see up close.

You could call this an anonymous building, but I call it a constantly shifting mirror of Tacoma. Photo: Morf Morford
You could call this an anonymous building, but I call it a constantly shifting mirror of Tacoma. Photo: Morf Morford

Skylines may be dramatic, but the real face of a city is in its public unpolished places.

I used to be bothered by the lack of a defined scenic and memorable skyline it Tacoma, but now I see it as Tacoma’s strength to not have one. Our city demands to be seen from different vantage points – some pointing to the past, some pointing to the future, some pointing to the arts, some pointing to industry, some pointing to unique architecture and some pointing to historic neighborhoods and some pointing to our wonderful parks.

The same is true of our economy. Tiny – and not so tiny – businesses are emerging in the odd and random corners of Tacoma and Pierce County.  (1*)

Tacoma’s and Pierce County’s diverse (literal) landscape is the perfect medium for every kind of business from breweries to software, from vegan cafes to business incubators and co-working office spaces.

Tacoma has a few large employers – and hundreds of small ones. Large employers, as Tacoma knows all too well, may come and go, but a community, and an economy, built of a thousand strands, will withstand economic upheavals and transitions and just might do even better in the next economy.


(1*)    For a little taste of the possibilities around Pierce County, you might start here – http://www.traveltacoma.com/regions/?.

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