Young People Will Miss Out on America’s Comeback

by Walter Molony, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst

In neighborhoods throughout the country, the real estate boom of the 1980s and 1990s moved the majority of people to the suburbs and left entire blocks to fall into disrepair. In New Orleans, we have forgotten about abandoned homes. In Colorado Springs, the boom of the 1990s left cheap housing tracts in back of good neighborhoods and precious few homes in the middle. We’ve forgotten about conditions of years past.

These are the stories of so many neighborhoods left behind by the real estate boom. That’s why if we are serious about creating jobs, we need to focus on this issue right now.

Economic development doesn’t mean a new house, a shiny car or yet another iPhone. Economic development means job creation–industry, jobs, opportunity. But that requires talent and knowledge.

Young people aren’t entering jobs like they used to, and the jobs they do have are increasingly suburban or all-male.

Where did all that talent and knowledge go? For decades, corporations and cities created opportunities–high-growth industries, new facilities, professional development and retraining–to attract talented people to put their talents to work. The result: young people were entering high-growth industries, getting new jobs and developing new skills in the workplace.

But in many places, the boom went bust. Cities suddenly had to learn to attract the talent they knew was sitting on the sidelines. Some places put in place new attraction programs to help attract young workers. Others dropped the issue. Cities no longer have the mechanisms they once had to support businesses, let alone their residents. In those places, where workers have gone, demand collapsed, and the most skilled young people ended up on the sidelines. What the big business schools and professional development centers didn’t see coming–the collapse of these industries, and the failure of professional development programs–has left many areas largely abandoned.

Some cities have continued the good work of attracting talented people with thoughtful, new programs aimed at the long-term prosperity of their cities. Austin, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Nashville are just a few of the cities that have consciously and strategically put their assets to work. If they learn from these efforts, they can both attract talent and build their communities for the long haul.

But we can’t keep throwing up cities like a septic tank. Other cities and states will emerge. We simply can’t leave this kind of rust to build up.

This shortage is rooted in training. But job training is probably not the right issue at this point. What’s missing is the demand side. Not only are the jobs not coming, but the most experienced young people, people who can be leaders in their fields and cultivate their most promising peers, are declining. What’s needed is an economy that supports the highest quality workers, and that is a must-do initiative for our time.

We have the talent. But when did we stop dreaming?

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