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Better service jobs are the path to fixing unemployment

Training is often touted as the solution to the growing skills mismatch that separate the jobless from growth sectors like health care. But training is an unrealistic solution when 36% of DC residents are functionally illiterate.

Photo by wisaflcio on Flickr.

As we move to a post-industrial economy, are the jobs that had previously provided avenues to the middle class for less educated Americans simply gone and not coming back?

Not so, says Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida has shifted his research to focus on those left out in the cold by the decline in industrial jobs and rise of the knowledge economy. A recent Atlantic article lays out Florida's solution.

"A big part of the answer", writes Florida, "lies in upgrading service class jobs—the largest class of jobs in virtually every advanced industrial nation":

Job growth in the United States. Image from Creative Class Exchange.

These jobs, primarily in leisure, hospitality and personal care, are rapidly growing as a share of the total jobs. The growing creative class of knowledge workers have higher incomes and demand more and better services.

Hence the growth of education and health care services, at the high end, and leisure, hospitality and personal care services, at the low end. Both types of services are producing jobs faster than any other sector in the District. The latter, lower-end services are performed by what Florida calls service class workers.

Job growth in DC. Figures in millions,

Despite this, no one thinks of them as a solution to unemployment because they are usually crappy jobs - low-wage, dead-end jobs with few benefits.

But factory jobs were also crappy jobs a century ago, argues Florida. As millions of workers left the farms people wondered who would employ them, and the only solution were low-wage, dead-end manufacturing jobs.

By the end of WWII, these crappy jobs were the pathway to the middle class. Thanks to unions and to the professionalization of management, factory jobs became higher value jobs that were more highly compensated.

As evidence that service class jobs are being upgraded in the same way, Florida points to the 20 firms employing primarily service workers on the Fortune list of 100 best companies to work for. In the top 10 are Wegmans, and REI.

There are three steps that Mayor Gray should take to help DC's jobless get and retain good service class jobs.

Expand transit links across the Anacostia to leverage the city's natural advantages
Unlike lots of jobs that have been outsourced, service class jobs are primarily done in person with end customers. That means service class workers have to commute to the neighborhoods where their customers live.

Factory jobs are usually located away from residential areas. While manufacturing has never been a large part of Washington's economy, much of America's present sprawl and auto-dependency is attributable to the zoning of neighborhoods by single use (residential, commercial, industrial) in response to the rise of factories.

Because service jobs are usually done in person, cities have a natural advantage in employing their service class residents. In fact, service class workers before the rise of manufacturing often lived in alleys directly behind the homes of wealthier residents.

The District should be leveraging this natural advantage by improving transit links across the Anacostia River to economically integrate the city. Metro, like other transit systems that arose in the 70s in Atlanta and San Francisco, exists primarily to shuttle suburban workers in and out of the city. Mayor Gray and DDOT Director Bellamy should increase their investment in the Circulator and Streetcar routes that shuttle District workers to District jobs.

Look for soft skills training models that work
Mayor Gray often points to the new Community College of DC as an example of his investment in training. While the training provided by CCDC is helpful for jobs in the growing health care field such as nursing assistants, the District's service class needs primarily soft skills training. Instead of focusing exclusively on technical intelligence for particular careers, we need to also focus on social intelligence for service class workers.

Lack of these soft skills is the barrier that keeps less educated workers from getting and keeping leisure, hospitality and personal care jobs. The Department of Employment Services (DOES) and the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development should find models for soft skills training that work.

Perhaps DOES could pay for soft skills case workers to connect clients with service class jobs and then meet regularly with the worker and their manager on-site to discuss their performance. This would effectively provide free training and personnel management for employers, and would target the specific skills mismatch that keeps service class workers jobless.

Target firms with good service class jobs for attracting to the District
Service class jobs will become better jobs the same way factory jobs became better jobs - re-engineering of workers' jobs to address demand for better quality from customers and better pay from workers.

DC's rapidly growing, well-paid class of knowledge workers increasingly demand more and better quality services in food, personal care and home care, and leisure. We need to build up a class of service sector managers who are skilled at re-engineering service processes and positions in order to meet these demands.

Ultimately it's these managers who will circulate between service sector firms in DC and make the District a center of excellence in services. Targeting those service providers in the 100 best companies to work for to attract to DC will build up this cadre of managers in the city who then make other service sector firms in DC great places to work.

It's a source of shame that 30% of our workers are out-of-work and 30% of our children live in poverty. Until this third of our city is lifted up, we cannot speak of progress in any other area.

While many talk about unemployment, few provide specific solutions. Whether one agrees with Florida or not, let's join him in offering specific solutions to the challenge rather than reiterating common platitudes.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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So, Ken, basically we need more:

Wegmans (3)
REI (9)
Container Store (21)
Whole Foods (24)
Build a bear
Four Seasons
Car Max
Kimpton Hotels
Olive Garden

to DC.

Why does that sound like,say, Vienna?

by charlie on May 27, 2011 12:36 pm • linkreport

Great piece. I agree this issue is paramount. Seems that we still face a living wage gap with service jobs, though your point about targeting better paying service jobs is well taken.

by ccort on May 27, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

"factory jobs were also crappy jobs a century ago"

true! what else, besides training and skills, made crappy jobs into living wage, family sustaining, lifting from poverty jobs?


we in the District--and everywhere--need to see to it that local and national service providers and retailers, who would prefer to pay poverty wages and pass the costs of benefits on to the public, stop blocking unionization. when workers have a voice on the job, they and everyone else benefits.

because "DC's rapidly growing, well-paid class of knowledge workers increasingly demand more and better quality services," they are also often quite willing to pay for that quality. look at the popularity of higher-priced "fast food" venues, like food trucks and local cafes, over and above the cheaper chains.

I completely agree that "re-engineering of workers' jobs to address demand for better quality from customers and better pay from workers." with unions, workers are far better able to advocate for the pay and benefits that will allow them to rise from poverty.

by Rebecca on May 27, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

I agree with you in concept, but I kinda think you are putting the cart before the horse.

Yes, it would be nice if the District (or metro area) could attract some medium level industrial economy to the area. Nothing serious like steel production, but I've always thought it would be hugely beneficial to create some assembly line jobs. Tesla was reportedly looking at a couple locations within the beltway to establish a car assembly plant a few years ago.

Or if GE opened a Solar Panel / Wind Turbine manufacturing plant...

But coming back to reality, the DC Metro unemployment rate is still only 5.8%, incredible low by comparison to any other major metro. There are a ton of jobs, even service level jobs in the area. The problem is, you can't even get a job flipping burgers if you are illiterate.

The illiteracy problem has to be solved first otherwise it doesn't matter how many unskilled labor jobs exist.

by freely on May 27, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

It might also help if neighborhoods did not stifle the growth of DC's largest non-government employers. Plenty of service and technical jobs there as well. Too bad neighborhoods describe the clients of those large employers describe the clients of those employers at rats and ghetto forming. Without growth of these large employers, creating new jobs is very hard.

[Pre-emptive note to David Alpert: I am not beating a dead horse here. This is a very serious note. You can't create jobs if the largest employers are forced to shrink their client base.]

by Jasper on May 27, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

Until this third of our city is lifted up, we cannot speak of progress in any other area.

Is this a an attempt at big tent guilt trip?

We can speak of progress in other areas. You can speak of the progress of rebuilding a house while you are in the process of rebuilding the house.

by greent on May 27, 2011 1:39 pm • linkreport

"true! what else, besides training and skills, made crappy jobs into living wage, family sustaining, lifting from poverty jobs?"

Productivity gains resulting from technical innovation and investment in capital.

Robots. Welding machines. CNC equipment. The assembly line. LEAN manufacturing, statistical process control. Quality assurance. Even things like plastic molding machines and baked-on powder coating technology reduces the amount of hands-on labor required to make stuff.

Unions played a role to ensure that the gains to productivity showed up in part in wages and benefits rather than solely in the returns to capital.

by Michael Perkins on May 27, 2011 1:40 pm • linkreport

No major business, unconnected to the Feds, would ever consider moving to DC with our corrupt political climate and race issues. Not a single one. Where's the proof? Exactly where we are today. Look at Gray's negotiations with Walmart as an example (although Walmart carries a lot of other baggage). Any owner is going to say, "look how big walmart is with all their lawyers, no way I can afford to go through that BS." It's been happening for years. Why deal with that when you can move to a welcoming state?

There are plenty of jobs for people who are trustworthy and WANT to work. With DC's unemployment support, there isn't a financial incentive to work. In addition, Barry and 50 years of his BS have filled people's heads with the belief that someone they're "owed" a chance to skip over entry level work straight up to the board room. Residents at the bottom of the economic latter have outsized egos and they'll never accept the level of work any government is capable of providing.

by ahk on May 27, 2011 1:46 pm • linkreport


I'm kind of curious - where would you put those factories? I can think of a couple of places in Fairfax County that might support a small one (although last I heard one of those was off-limits), but I'm guessing there would probably be better pickings in PG County?

I've often wondered, idly, about something similar.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on May 27, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

@Ser Amantio di Nicolao,

I would be fighting to get them in the District as I don't really care about FFX or PG Counties.

Over the years I've seen a handful of existing unused industrial parcels along NY Ave, Bladensburg etc. They have greta access to both roadway and rail (cargo that is) which I would imagine would be important to a "GE" kind of manufacturer. Wouldn't need much. A few hundred thousand sq/ft (which this corridor seems to have easily available).

I imagine that initially, zoning would be an issue, but not a serious one. I imagine DC would (or should in this case) bend over backwards if someone like GE wanted to bring a few thousand labor jobs to the District.

Oh well...

by freely on May 27, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport



I'd forgotten there were places up there along New York Ave. that could do the trick. I used to work up there, off of Rhode Island Ave. - yeah, there are quite a few parcels up towards the Maryland line that could use revamping.

But why stop there? Why not extend into the counties and let us get a taste of some of the bounty? :-) There's a great site right where Route 1 meets the Beltway, in Lorton, that could stand to be well-developed into some kind of halfway decent project. And it's large enough to support manufacturing. Pity the owner doesn't want to sell...apparently his rusted-auto-parts business is really doing well.

by Ser Amantio di nicolao on May 27, 2011 2:50 pm • linkreport

I think this article brings up some good points. DC has improved its vocational education programs over the last few decades, but only recently have there been stronger job growth and prospects with new stores, restaurants, development.
Providing solutions to the long commutes is one need, which the mayor is doing a good job addressing through continued infrastructure funding. Another is probably language training - as ability to speak English would be a minimum requirement for these service industry jobs with growth potential. I'm not sure whether DC has the capacity to provide this training and haven't heard much from the mayor in this area.

by DCster on May 27, 2011 2:52 pm • linkreport

good analysis. I think this also substantiates why teaching good customer service skills is a pre-req to putting this segment to work. Like I've said many times over, the poor service we receive in these stores in the District is not going to help us get employment here. I was talking to a VP of a big regional utility company some months back and he said he was involved in some program whose aim was to teach these employed that 'getting along with people' was the first step in KEEPING a job. As he put it, it's one thing to get a job and entirely a different thing to keep it ... and getting along with people while on the job was a major factor as to whether people would remain employed after they found one. He was talking about employees relationships with each other, but I think the same claim can be made between service workers and the people they serve. It seems there's a correlation between real 'service' and the farther I shop from the core of DC. The further I go, the more I see that salesperson wanting to help some my problems AND 'just be nice'. Chatting about the weather and my day or whatever. I know in the 'big city' we like to rush ... but I think a lesson could be learned from these other places where items actually cost less. We like our mom and pops in the city because the people there treat us nicely and act and sound like they want to help us. I'm not seeing that though with the larger stores here. I'm seeing situations where salespeople are uninformed, where cashiers go about THEIR day chatting with coworkers while the check you out, where the employees just don't seem to care to make your shopping experience special. (And yes, this extends to seeing dirty floors and trash in what would otherwise be well kept areas in the equivalent of the suburban stores.) Ken, I think you're on the right track here that the new service economy is bringing in a lot of dollars looking to be spent on GOOD service .... and training the otherwise unemployed on how to give good service is a surefire way to capture some of those dollars by our local economy. I also agree with you to a certain extent about the transporatation issue. I just don't think it's a matter of 'intra-DC' transportation options being lacking. People don't care where their money comes from ... provided it comes. If it means someone from Anacostia traveling out to Great Bridge to make a buck that is no different from their traveling up to Northwest or over to Baltimore to make that same buck. The problem you're identifying calls for a solution that allows those workers to go wherever that demand may be ... and that can change over time. Like the factory workers of the mid-20th century, they need to be able to get to their jobs. Today there may be a customer in Vienna needing their services, and tomorrow it may be in PG County. Building a streetcar from Anacostia to the other side of DC won't help in either of these cases. It'll only help in the off chance that they need to go to Northwest next week ... I.e., The key is to giving people the most flexibility in terms of travel options. And at this point, it's only a car that can do that.

by Lance on May 27, 2011 3:20 pm • linkreport

@Lance: it took all that to get to your main point:

The key is to giving people the most flexibility in terms of travel options. And at this point, it's only a car that can do that.

Impressively done sir.

by greent on May 27, 2011 3:32 pm • linkreport

Um, DC created 26.5 _million_ jobs in educational & health services?

by Rob on May 27, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport


Thanks. But that was only my 2nd point. The first was that teaching simple things like curteousy and helpfullness and enthusiasm for one's job will go a long ways in helping our unemployed be a good fit for the kind of 'service jobs' Ken writes about.

by Lance on May 27, 2011 8:41 pm • linkreport

"It's a source of shame that 30% of our workers are out-of-work and 30% of our children live in poverty. Until this third of our city is lifted up, we cannot speak of progress in any other area."

Here's another option: cut them loose. It's time to stop the enablers of generational poverty in this city at the source. If a person can't afford to live in this city without assistance and can't find a job in a region with near-natural unemployment, then it's time for that person to go. Cut that person a bus ticket out and a check for one year of support; the city will free itself of the burdens that hold it back. Let a more functional, productive person fill the vacancy.
There are plenty of places in this country where the under-educated can live affordably; DC doesn't have to be one of them.

The way ahead for DC isn't yet more training. It's time limits on social assistance with a progressive reduction in benefits. This will ensure a social safety net exists for the people who truly need it rather than perpetuating the generational cycle of poverty, ignorance, and violence.

by Smoke_Jaguar4 on May 27, 2011 11:30 pm • linkreport

But training is an unrealistic solution when 36% of DC residents are functionally illiterate.

Maybe teaching someone literacy isn't called training but that's really the first step. You're never too old to learn and I don't see how someone can do a job well that involves interacting with customers without being literate.

Building more transit links with EOTR is nice to have but I doubt there are many unemployed people turning down jobs because of the difficulty of commuting to other parts of DC.

I'd like to see evidence that soft skills training works before investing heavily in it. My instinct says that "social intelligence" is hard to teach and dependent on cultural norms set by a particular class of people.

by Falls Church on May 28, 2011 12:13 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church: You wrote: "Building more transit links with EOTR is nice to have but I doubt there are many unemployed people turning down jobs because of the difficulty of commuting to other parts of DC."

Perhaps not, but what about within their own area? Wouldn't creating more transit east of the river encourage more development over that way? Service jobs are nice, and all, but what would be better would be to revitalize that area, to bring some of the jobs to the community instead of the other way round.

I'm not saying that should be the only solution - literacy training ought to be a large part of it, along with customer service training. But it would be interesting to see what results from such an approach.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on May 28, 2011 12:54 pm • linkreport

Good article. It's interesting that your solution to economic segregation is to improve transit links. Which I agree with -- but if the problem is segregation, then maybe part of the solution is ... integration. I.e., we should be increasing housing opportunities in neighborhoods with high levels of service jobs, both through overall increases in the housing supply and targeting housing set-asides at the appropriate income levels.

by Dan on May 28, 2011 8:32 pm • linkreport

Until the one-third or so of the city that is always coddled by elected demagogues as "the least, the last, and the lost" and begins to address cultural pathologies such as teen pregnancy, juvenile crime, fatherless families, lack of emphasis on education and advancement, and generational dependency on government handouts, nothing will happen to change the status, no matter how many more tens of millions we waste on "jobs training programs" that oftentimes have no performance measurements, accountability, and happen to be run by people with Wilson Building connections.

Until our government-dependent communities begin to cut the chord, the traditional liberal platitudes of it "takes a village" won't get us any closer to a solution; it's been tried for several decades and hasn't produced any results.

by Fritz on May 29, 2011 10:41 am • linkreport

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