The geography of jobs

I’ve been a feature writer for almost a decade, and for a brief blink of an eye, I wrote for a Web site about jobs and careers.

I still find it an interesting field and one that connects in some way to everyone.

This fall, I’m taking classes in urban studies, and jobs are definitely a key element in understanding why people live in cities and suburbs.

When I was a staff writer for that Web site, I worked with a great manager/editor and really talented writers, and although the content was accessible (and easy to read), we put a lot of hard work into what we wrote.

But even with that research and all our great intentions, many of our articles carried an unintended but obvious bias: we were writing for white-collar readers who lived and worked in larger cities and larger job markets.

Yes, we wrote about blue collar jobs, jobs that didn’t require a degree and work for people who were beginners, part-time workers, older workers and interns. But our demographic was primarily young white-collar college grads, and we delivered.

I’ve lived in Chicago for four years now, and I admit to some collective amnesia about some of the other places I’ve lived and other jobs I’ve had. But a recent trip reminded me of how different the job market – and the art of establishing and sustaining a career – really is in other areas.

Perhaps the most vivid example for me was a recent visit my partner and I made to a lakeside community. The town had a bustling boardwalk area – fun and frentic, with a mixture of shops and little ramshackle restaurants where people could eat dinner or have some candy or ice cream.

We walked by one of the more famous places on the stroll, and I sat outside as we waited for food. From my vantage point, I could see the staff working. And their segregation – and interactions – were in some ways very chilling to me, even on a hundred-degree day.

The workers, all college age or younger, were grouped together. The female employees were all up front, essentially there to wordlessly deliver food to the customers with a smile. They were not allowed to take orders.

The young men gathered around the grill and clearly had an ‘alpha male’ attitude. In the short time that I sat and waited, their body language – and the rude, unflattering things they said to the young women working – told me all I needed to know about the hierarchy there.

And then, off to the side, ignored by both groups, was the sole “diverse” face in the group, a young African-American girl.

I realize I’m making a judgement about a place I saw for maybe five minutes. But something about this haunted me. The place had been open for 60 years and something told me that very little had changed in that time.

It reminded me that in small towns, there aren’t always multiple career options. Sometimes you are dealing with outdated ideas about gender and race at a workplace. These are issues that no resume tweak and no interview tactic will fix.

During that same trip, I visited a few friends in northwestern Pennsylvania. One is an amazing writer who just recently finished a business degree. He was valedictorian of his class and went searching for a new “career” job – and promptly found offers that were no better than the part time work he’d sought before he was in school.

He eventually found a job with fair wages, but soon learned he was working for a boss who was homophobic. No matter how efficient my friend was at his job, the boss  created an unfriendly work environment for him. Eventually my friend had no choice but to leave that job.

Another friend is a very talented interior designer, and has established a name for himself and for his eye for design. But the opportunities for him to practice his craft in his own backyard, so to speak, have significantly diminished in the last several years. The company he’d worked for closed up shop. There simply weren’t other options in the community he loved and where his parents and family were anchored.

When his job at home ended, he had to go where the action was, so to speak. As a result, he’s had to live “a tale of two cities” for years, living part of the week in his home in Pennsylvania and part of the week in the Ohio town he works in a couple of hours away.

I don’t think any of the career posts and article I wrote are any less true or real. I’m just beginning to believe that too often, white collar bias and urban career bias slipped into those articles and blog posts.

And this IS the part of the job creation puzzle that I think has been widely ignored by all political parties. We can talk about big scale projects in urban areas, or big energy and manufacturing plants that are booming in the Southeast and Southwest.

But what are the choices on Main Street? If you’re in a small or medium size city, is relocation the only resolution to a career crisis? I honestly don’t have the answers, but I know the disappearance of small local businesses (and the advent of big corporate ventures like Wal-mart settling in those areas) has changed the job landscape in small American towns forever.

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