by James A. Bacon
Martinsville is one of Virginia’s hard luck cases. Once a thriving center of home-grown furniture and apparel enterprises, its economy has been hollowed out by international trade, and its unemployment rate chronically runs around twice the state average. Earlier this year, when the statewide unemployment rate was hovering around 4.0%, joblessness in Martinsville had barely dipped below 8.0%.
Given the persistent slack in the labor force, one would think that workers would go to great lengths to get a job. Remarkably, many are not. At a recent Martinsville City Council meeting, city officials and economic developers estimated that about 1,400 jobs were unfilled in the area.
“We don’t have an employment problem. We have a participation problem” — people don’t want to be part of the workforce anymore, City Manager Leon Towarnicki told the council, reports the Martinsville Bulletin.
Said Mark Heath, CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp: the key to filling available jobs is “to motivate people that it’s better to have a job and go to work” than rely upon government aid to sustain themselves.
As an example, Heath cited the experience of the local New College Institute, which launched the Center for Advanced Film Manufacturing in 2014 to train employees for jobs at Eastman Chemical Co. and other local high-tech manufacturers. Students take 28 credit hours of work over two semesters. Financial aid is available; no one is turned away due to an inability to pay. Moreover, graduates are virtually guaranteed a job. Heath had hoped that 40 to 45 people would enroll this semester. The actual number: 15.
Bacon’s bottom line: The conventional wisdom in Virginia is that unemployment is high because there aren’t enough jobs and that, therefore, government needs to do something to stimulate job creation. A more sophisticated version of the CW is that there is a mismatch between job requirements and the skills of the workforce — Governor Terry McAuliffe has famously said that there are nearly 30,000 tech vacancies in Northern Virginia alone — implying that we could lick the problem if only the educational/training system did a better job of equipping workers with the skills that employers need.
Without question, solving the jobs-training mismatch is part of the solution. But how we explain the situation in Martinsville, where a mechanism exists to train workers and provide them jobs, and there disappointingly few takers?
Dare we “blame the victim” and suggest that not all Virginians are equally motivated to find work… that some are content to live on government support, as meager and inadequate as that may be?
Read the comment thread on the Martinsville Bulletin article. It’s fascinating. Some readers point out that it’s hard to go to school if you can’t afford to pay for rent, gas and day care. Others, many of whom put themselves through school to earn a credential needed for a job, have no sympathy whatsoever. As one man a said, “I just spent over two years going to school at night while working 45 hours a week. Where there is a will to succeed, a way is made. Work ethic is dying in this country, and it is starting to show.”