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About those exciting jobs of tomorrow

Desert Companion

Many of them will still involve French fries

If you paid any attention to the Nevada Legislature this year — the policy part, not the part about the weird woman with all the guns who thinks cancer is a fungus — you heard a fair amount about the need to finally improve education so that Nevada’s youth will be prepared for the exciting jobs of tomorrow.

Great. I started tilting at the better-living-through-education windmill immediately upon arriving in Nevada nearly 20 years ago. Happy to see the establishment inertia that thwarted increased education spending for so long is finally coming dislodged. Better late than later.

But with so much focus on the most fashionable policies of 1995, Nevada policymakers in business, education and every level of government are ignoring a big, hairy fact: The lion’s share of the jobs of tomorrow are, well, pretty much the jobs of today.

Over the next several years, the top occupation in Nevada, in terms of the number of jobs created, will not be the design and manufacture of energy-infrastructure-transforming household power storage units at Tesla. Nor will it be tending servers at giant data centers, or creating “innovative tech-based solutions.”

The occupation that will grow the most in Nevada through 2022, according to official projections generated by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and adopted by the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR), is “combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.”

Support comes from

That is, according to DETR, also one of the lowest-paying occupations in the state. Eight of the 10 biggest-growth jobs through 2022 are among the state’s lowest-paying. (Carpenters and construction laborers are the exceptions.) For three of those occupations, the “typical education needed for entry” is “high school degree or equivalent.” For the other seven, it’s “less than high school.”

Though not in the top 10, other big-growth Nevada occupations include janitors, maids, security guards, office clerks, cashiers and bartenders — also jobs that require relatively little education and that are typically (though not always) low-paying.

The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project calculates that more than a third of Nevada workers are paid less than $12.38 an hour (150 percent of Nevada’s top-tier minimum wage). Given the nature of most of the jobs that will be created over the next several years, the portion of Nevada’s workers in low-paying jobs will only get bigger.

It’s no secret. Last month, DETR released an updated analysis of the labor market through the end of 2017. Yes, the report singled out anticipated growth in manufacturing jobs due to the Tesla/Panasonic battery factory near Reno. But a closer look at DETR’s analysis shows that the number of jobs merely added to the hospitality and retail sectors between now and the end of 2017 will exceed the total number of manufacturing jobs in the state by then.

No matter how many battery factories, or spaceships, or robots (to eat all the battery factory and spaceship jobs?) Elon Musk or anyone else builds in Nevada, at least a third and perhaps, in time, closer to half of all working Nevadans will be employed in jobs characterized by poor pay, few if any benefits and little opportunity for advancement.

It's Not Just the Pay, It's the Hours

And more and more of those jobs will be part-time. Many already are. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates more than a fifth of Nevada employees are working part-time, some by choice, but a growing number because full-time work is unavailable. Retail in particular — Nevada’s second largest employer and one of the lowest-paying — is notorious for scheduling employees, including those who desperately want to work full-time, for only 15 or 20 hours a week, or less. Blaming the Affordable Care Act, by the way, is a red herring; the rising employer preference for part-time, disposable labor was documented long before anyone had ever heard of Barack Obama.

The transition from regular, stable work schedules to precarious part-time, contract, temporary and freelance labor (you’re reading some now) is rife throughout the economy (Uber is a symptom of this, not a solution for it). And, pioneered by retail, what employers like to call “flexible” employment is especially prevalent in low-paying jobs that require little educational attainment — that is, Nevada’s jobs of tomorrow.

Make no mistake, improving education in Nevada is the single best way to attract and create high-paying, high-quality jobs in fields other than historical local mainstays such as the care and feeding of tourists, and building houses for people who make a living building houses. Education is a necessary prerequisite for any Nevadan hoping to land a non-resort, non-construction, high-quality, high-paying job of the sort politicians and civic leaders are always promising. Again, it’s refreshing that at least some establishment palms have gone to establishment foreheads on that score.

But no matter how many conferences and roundtables and summits are packed with upper middle-class professionals solemnly chanting “STEM,” the jobs in Nevada that actually require training in science, technology, engineering and math will be a tiny fraction of the number of jobs created in retail, accommodation and food services, and clerical work. No matter how earnest the hope for a growing and more diversified economy tomorrow, or how sincere the concern for the well-being of our precious snowflakes in the classroom today, we need to be honest about the type of careers many Nevadans are actually going to have when they grow up — jobs they’ll have not because of their laziness or personal failings or low character or insufficient self-hoisting via bootstrap, but because those are the jobs we are going to have.

 

It Needs to Get Better Before It Gets Worse

Our economy and society depend on the goods and services delivered by the people in those jobs. They are to the 21st century what factory workers were to the 20th.

Except America generally didn’t ridicule and stigmatize factory workers as somehow unworthy. Factory workers were not begrudged a living wage, a regular work schedule, overtime and holiday pay, and health and retirement benefits. Politicians, media personalities and an almost rabid contingent of the American public were not constantly demeaning factory workers for their perceived lack of effort or morals. The buzz on factory workers was that they worked hard, so they deserved a decent home, dependable transportation and the other accoutrements of a middle-class lifestyle. Factory workers were okay. This is part of why America is so nostalgic for manufacturing jobs, and why Nevada is so eager to attract them.

Accommodation and food service workers work hard. So do retail salespersons. So do people filling the other occupations that are projected to grow more than others in coming years — the actual jobs of tomorrow.

Popular hostility to people in those jobs needs to stop, and not just because work and workers should be respected. Demeaning a third or more of the workforce only makes it all the less likely that the pay, conditions and quality of those jobs will ever improve. And that sucks for Nevada’s economy.

If the jobs of tomorrow offer inflation-adjusted pay and working conditions comparable to that offered today, a lot of working Nevadans will be exploited, often by out-of-state corporations, to create profits that will fly out of Nevada to enrich hedge funds and other wealthy out-of-state investors. Corporations and their investors will continue to shift more costs to Nevada, for example, to cover health care for retail employers whose low incomes qualify them for Medicaid. And other Nevadans, especially small business owners, contracted service-providers and the self-employed, themselves frequently teetering on the financial precipice, will suffer because so many Nevadans working in the jobs of tomorrow won’t have enough money to buy what those other Nevadans will be selling tomorrow.

Solutions to all this aren’t shrouded in mystery. Local wage and sick-pay ordinances, revising a federal tax code that redistributes wealth from the bottom to the top, protecting workers through regulations and empowering them through bargaining … economists, policy analysts, non-governmental organizations and grassroots community groups have identified numerous tangible measures to bring some sense, and some dignity, to a deliberately distorted and unfair labor “market” that serves no one well except some of the nation’s richest investors. Policy is the easy part.

Approval and implementation of policy is harder, because the status quo has been baked into our culture. In case you missed it, here’s the recipe:

In a large sphere, pour politicians who don’t care about low-income workers, especially low-income workers who don’t vote; add politicians who might care but care about campaign contributions more (any remaining politicians can be discarded or, alternatively, julienned for decorative garnish). Stir in several heaping dollops of ideology about how the market and only the market may decide the value of work (almost always served with generous portions of aggressively disparaging remarks about burdensome government regulations). Marinade in extremely rich (i.e., well-funded) anti-labor, pro-corporate propaganda. Top with an acquiescent, source-friendly media. Cook on high heat for four to five decades. Dish is done when retail workers are outraged because food-service workers want a raise.

Note: Sure to delight executives in both the retail and food-service industries.

A report on “The Future of Work in the States” produced by the Economic Policy Institute’s state-level Economic Analysis Research Network shows that low-wage, precarious occupations will lead job growth throughout the nation, not just in Nevada.

But by the time the U.S. had transformed into a service economy, Nevada had already been there/done that for decades. More than most states, maybe more than any state, Nevada is now obliged to confront the future — and the present — realistically.

Elected officials and policy leaders must acknowledge that improving education, while long overdue, will not in itself determine Nevada’s prosperity, let alone whether prosperity will be shared. Respect for workers needs to be restored — and that includes among Nevada employees themselves, who need to reject the poisonous recipe deliberately concocted to pit them against each other. Nevada voters need to demand and support policies that will assure better pay, conditions and lives for the Nevadans who will be working in the real, actual jobs of tomorrow. And we need to start doing all that yesterday.