March 10, 2012 – White, Blue and Green – The changing character of Seattle jobs

Seattle is in a long transition from a city of smaller communities with a working class focus to a “world-class” city and regional hub dominated by downtown interests and a new range of innovative industries, from high-tech to biomedical to electronic commerce.

Yet in the decade between 2000 and 2010 when Seattle’s population increased by 8%, it lost 8% of its jobs – over 40,000 according to the Office of Economic Development.  While some are due to notable business failures such as WAMU, there has been a significant decline in workers employed in the city’s industrial sector – from about 20% of our workforce to about 12%.  Regionally, in the same decade, 25% of all manufacturing jobs were lost.  And while in the last year there has been job growth, it has been overwhelmingly in the white collar professional services and personal services sectors.

Many have placed hope in a renaissance of “green jobs” – jobs that help to protect ecosystems and bio-diversity; reduce energy, materials, and water consumption through high efficiency strategies; de-carbonize the economy; and minimize or altogether avoid generation of all forms of waste and pollution.  Statewide these represented almost 79,000 jobs in 2009; 17,000 of which alone were tied to renewable energy.

12 percent of Seattle’s land mass (6,500 acres) is designated for industrial uses, and the vast majority of that is located in the Duwamish River valley and the Ballard/Interbay industrial district (but surprisingly half of our industrial jobs are located outside of those areas).  Of the approximately 55,000 business in Seattle, about 10% are industrial or manufacturing.

As the population of Seattle and the region grows, the secondary effects of more traffic (affecting freight mobility), demands for land, increasing costs of doing business and environmental regulations have challenged our traditional industries and the blue collar work force it employs.  Just this week it was announced that 20 percent of the Port of Seattle’s container traffic is moving to Tacoma.  But intra-regional competition also saw Seattle take 700+ white collar jobs from Tacoma in the Russell Investments move.

Blue collar jobs can pay well – a union job averages about $60,000/year.  Can Seattle retain its blue collar workforce and find ways to retain and grow its industrial and manufacturing base?  Are there ways the City can help make them competitive in this rapidly changing world?   What would it take to do that?

A partnership between the City of Seattle, King County, the Port, and the State of Washington is seeking industrial development ideas to address regulatory, policy, and financial issues. Called the “Industrial Development District”, this may be a step towards adding new vitality to Seattle’s industrial sector, but alone it is unlikely to address the wide range of challenges this sector faces.

Our speaker today is Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association which represents maritime and industrial businesses, many independent and family owned.  He also serves on the Seattle City Light Review Panel charged with developing the utility’s strategic plan.  He previously chaired the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s Utility Committee and has served on several City Light Rate Advisory, Strategic Plan, and energy conservation committees. Eugene spent 22 years as the Executive Director of the Neighborhood Business Council, an association of neighborhood chambers of commerce, merchant association, business and industrial associations, and helped create the Chinatown, University District and Broadway BIAs.

by Bill Bradburd 3/9/2012

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