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Quality of jobs is key to jobless rate

June 12, 2011

My long-held opinion of state and local economic commissions is that they should not exist.

States compete against states, and within states, counties compete against counties for industry, spending untold millions — if not billions — of our tax dollars in the process.

And who’s to say that someone in Louisiana is more deserving of work than someone in Mississippi, just because one state or local EDC might do a better job of attracting business?

At their heart, EDCs exist by using our tax money to give away even more of our tax money in the form of tax breaks, cheap loans, land giveaways and financial incentives to companies that don’t even need it.

Part of doing business is, or should be, finding a location, buying land and paying taxes. I see no reason why our money is necessary to fuel what business has to do anyway.

But I’m never going to win that argument. Even my libertarian friends think I’ve gone too far, and I understand that EDCs will always be with us.

So all that off my chest, I now turn to a recent Herald-Mail report contrasting the unemployment rate in Washington County with the rate in Franklin County, Pa., and soliciting EDC explanations for what has become a disturbing gap.

Our neighbor to the north has an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent, while ours stands at 9.1 percent.

Franklin County’s EDC points to several solid manufacturing rebounds, while Washington County’s EDC refers to a “jobless recovery.”

A couple of other suggested mitigating factors in Washington County’s defense don’t seem to hold water. Hagers-town is bigger than Chambersburg, and urban areas have higher unemployment than rural areas? Not necessarily. Unemployment in rural Fulton County, Pa., just to the west of Franklin, tops 9 percent.

Then there was this thought: The industrial-growth artery of Interstate 81 runs for 24 miles through Franklin County, but only for 12 miles in Washington County. OK, but what’s I-70 — chopped liver? If Interstate mileage is the answer, Washington County actually has twice the advantage.

Of course, parsing unemployment rates in the Tri-State area is a dicey proposition, because so many people cross county and state lines to work.

And these numbers might not be as much about the number of jobs as they are about the value of the jobs, along with relative costs of living.

Washington County isn’t keeping pace with Franklin County because the quality of the jobs within our borders isn’t keeping pace. This is the result of clear choices by the Washington County Commissioners and EDC boards of yore that placed so many chips on service jobs and a poor-paying, warehouse economy.

So Washington County mixes dirt-poor wages with the region’s highest property prices. That’s a problem.

Jobs that pay in the $10-an-hour ballpark will not pay for the higher cost of housing in Washington County. The people who work here might not be able to afford a home here, so they look to Pennsylvania or West Virginia. (Where they will effectively be counted as employed there, even if they work here.)

This leaves us with a higher proportion of people remaniing here who are chronically unemployed — or even unemployable. They are the ones who show up in the unemployment rate. And that might explain why some of our surplus unemployed simply don’t drive to Pennsylvania, where jobs appear to be more plentiful. They lack the skills needed for those higher-paying, manufacturing jobs.

Many of these people, therefore, will fall back on the retail and fast-food services that thrive here because of our geographic location.

There, in a nutshell, is Washington County’s conundrum. If we are skilled, we must cross county lines to work, because there is nothing for us here. The semi-skilled can work here, but must live elsewhere. And the unskilled either catch a service job or don’t work at all and survive on the public dole.

So we have become the bedroom community of populated counties to the east, and the shopping community of unpopulated counties to the north, south and west. Inside our lines, people with poor skills attract only poor jobs, and these poor jobs attract only more people with poor skills. And on it goes.

It will be up to the commissioners and EDC boards of today and in the future to decide whether this is a good model for Washington County.


Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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