August 26, 2007

For God's Sake, People, Go West!

WE LEARN FROM the Associated Press that Montana, of all places, is experiencing an economic boom so fierce employers are finding it pretty much impossible to fill jobs. The boom, as one might expect from the West, is due to heavy investment in resource extraction. With unemployment at just 2 pc, that's left other employers looking around and wondering where the hell all the job applicants went:

HELENA, Mont. -- The owner of a fast food joint in Montana's booming oil patch found himself outsourcing the drive-thru window to a Texas telemarketing firm, not because it's cheaper but because he can't find workers.

Record low unemployment across parts of the West has created tough working conditions for business owners, who in places are being forced to boost wages or be creative to fill their jobs.

John Francis, who owns the McDonald's in Sidney, Mont., said he tried advertising in the local newspaper and even offered up to $10 an hour to compete with higher-paying oil field jobs. Yet the only calls were from other business owners upset they would have to raise wages, too. Of course, Francis' current employees also wanted a pay hike.

"I don't know what the answer is," Francis said. "There's just nobody around that wants to work."

Well, the problem here is pretty obvious, and so is the answer. The problem is a fundamental imbalance in the local labor pool's supply and demand. The demand from employers is high, while the supply is low. Thus, employers who want to attract workers must raise their wages to equilibrium, or they're not going to have any workers. Mr Francis' complaint is thus disingenuous -- there's just nobody around who wants to work at the wage he wants to pay them.

Of course, one way for Mr Francis and his business-owner colleagues to fix this problem is to find more workers, of which there are plenty. Perhaps they should advertise. Heck, my home state of Michigan, where unemployment is higher than seven percent and even higher in the major cities, has oodles of idle workers who would like nothing more than to get back into the labor force. Oh, and it would appear there are some folks in Iowa who will soon be looking for work. The New York Times has the story:

NEWTON, Iowa -- THE LAST of the Maytag factories that lifted so many people into the middle class here will close on Oct. 26. Guy Winchell and his wife, Lisa, will lose their jobs that day. Their combined income of $43 an hour will disappear and, soon after, so will their health insurance. Most of the pensions they would have received will also be gone.

The Winchells are still in their 40s. They can retrain or start a business, choices promoted by city leaders in a campaign to “reinvent” Newton without its biggest employer. But as they ponder their futures, the Winchells are uncertain about how to deal with a lower standard of living. “I’m not wanting to go waitress,” said Mrs. Winchell, who, at 41, drives a forklift and earns $19 an hour, “but I can do what I have to to make money.”

Mr. Winchell, 46, having earned $24 an hour as a skilled electrician, seems paralyzed by the disappearance of his employer. He imagines that there is work for electricians in central Iowa but he hasn’t looked. “Lisa is always on me because I’m so angry,” he said. “She says, ‘What would your mom have said?’ My mom would have said, ‘Worrying is not going to help.’”

Newton’s last day as a manufacturing mecca comes a century after Fred L. Maytag built his first mechanical washing machine here. Over time he also located his headquarters, research center and most production in Newton, changing it from a rural county seat into a prosperous city of 16,000. Absent Maytag’s high pay, overall hourly earnings last year for other workers in the county would have been $3 an hour less, according to Iowa Workforce Development, a state agency.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to Mr Winchell's frustration. When one has invested one's whole life in a particular job or company, that really becomes part of one's identity and to have that taken away can really throw one for a loss. But it's one thing to be angry about losing one's job, and another thing entirely to let that keep a man from picking himself up, dusting himself up, and getting back in the race.

Of course, getting back in the race can mean a lot of life changes. Mr Winchell has spoken of looking for jobs in central Iowa, but I don't see why he would limit himself to just central Iowa. As a tradesman, he can pretty much go wherever he wants and find work -- and relocating for work can do a lot in terms of one's getting ahead in life.

I know this through my own experience, as I moved from Los Angeles to New Hampshire solely for the work, a move which took place three years after I moved to Los Angeles solely for the work. When my work here ends, I'll depart New Hampshire for better (and, God willing, warmer) climes. That could be when I retire from my present job (the Granite State is not the best place to retire tax-wise) or it could be when circumstances change and I find I've been made redundant. Sure, I could have stayed in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich. all these years, but the opportunities for which I was looking weren't there.

I fully admit it may be easier for me to say this, as when Mr Kepple was working, my own family moved solely for the work. So I'm used to the idea -- and used to the idea of not growing up near one's extended family, or the social networks that one has in a place where one's family has lived for a long time. But you keep up with your family as best you can and build new relationships and do what you have to do. That is the way of things in this day and age.

Personally, if I was in Mr Winchell's shoes -- or any of those about-to-be-unemployed Maytag workers, I'd get the hell out of Iowa while the getting was good and go where the grass was greener. Like, say, Montana. (It's pretty country up there and not unlike Iowa culturally, I'll bet). And although I feel secure in my own position here in New Hampshire, I definitely have my running shoes at the ready. It's easy but dangerous to take things in life for granted and so I've made plans should the unthinkable happen. These plans include the following:

1. Go out for a good steak dinner.
2. Take a good long vacation. A very good, very long vacation. Like, a drive around the country vacation in which I visit all my friends and family and go places where I've never been. Hey, when the hell am I going to get this type of free time again?
3. Four or six weeks later, come back and file for unemployment.
4. Start looking for work the next Monday.

Perhaps that's a bit idealistic on my part -- after all, there's something to be said for hitting the ground the very next morning -- but it sounds like a plan and I'm going to stick with it. Besides, if worse came to worst, I could always head out to Montana.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at August 26, 2007 06:27 PM | TrackBack
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