Unemployment is probably the District’s biggest problem at the moment. The city’s doing what it can, rolling out initiatives like raising awareness of available subsidies and offering incentives for contractors to hire locally, but that’s all ultimately up to the private sector. Is there anything the District could do to create jobs itself, without increasing costs?
Maybe. This morning, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning briefed a panel of bigwigs from the Urban Land Institute who are supposed to gift us with their wisdom on what to do with the Martin Luther King Jr. Library at the end of the week. None of them are D.C. residents, so she went over basics, but also provided some hints into how the city is thinking about future employment. One of them is relying on manpower, not mechanization—-countering a civilizational trend that’s left us with more people than jobs to occupy them. “We are starting to reconsider some of those choices,” Tregoning said, and “might choose a path that has a lot more labor.”
What does that mean? In D.C., for example, all fareboxes are electronic. In St. Louis—-where Tregoning is from—-the Metro operates on an honor system, but employs people to spot-check tickets. It’s probably unlikely that WMATA would switch from the Smartrip system to human fare checkers, or re-hire all the people who were surplused as Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant moved towards automation. But there are other major infrastructure upgrades that could go in a different direction, like a waste management system that sends less garbage to landfills (a waste-to-energy facility has been mentioned). As much as D.C. wants to move towards a knowledge-based economy, Tregoning said, “we also know we’re going to need more jobs that are suited to every level of education.”
Interesting thought. Likely, the ongoing cost of salaries for human labor would eventually exceed the up-front capital cost of high-tech mechanized systems. But bolstering the blue-collar workforce through building labor into services—-rather than trying to make work where none is needed—-might also be a good way to create a more equitable city.