The 2016 election laid bare multiple divisions in American society, but one of the biggest is geographical. In major cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, people are generally doing well (if not equally so), while many places situated far from urban business centers aren’t.
Remarkably, faith in the American dream runs highestin locales where social mobility is lowest. U.S. companies, which for the past eight months have been struggling to navigate choppy political waters, should see that as an opportunity—even a call to action.
ADD GEOGRAPHY TO YOUR DIVERSITY GOALS
Many business leaders I’ve spoken to have been thinking harder lately about how to reverse political, cultural, and socioeconomic polarization. Some saymore urban professionals from the coasts should move out to the middle of the country. Others might wish for corporations to relocate to suburbs and rural areas in need of opportunity, rather than continue the opposite trend.
But if businesses really want to create jobs in struggling parts of America—the places unfairly dismissed by some on the coasts as “flyover country”—and bridge political divisions in the process, the solution is simpler: Hire more people outside of big coastal cities. Just don’t ask them to move.
The most innovative companies have already committed to building more diverse workforces, knowing that that’s both an ethical and competitiveimperative. Some have set clear hiring targets for demographic representation, occasionally even publishing them in order to keep themselves accountable. Why not take the same approach to geography?
As virtually every politician across the political spectrum will eagerly remind you, residents of places like Youngstown, Ohio, or McDowell County, Virginia, are pissed off—and they have every right to be, because their local economies have been shattered in recent decades while jobs funneled out to big cities or overseas. In one analysis a couple of years ago, 20 metropolitan areas were generating more than half the country’s GDP output, and there’s little to indicate much has changed since.
In fact, the low national unemployment rate of 4.9%masks a deeper problem: Many people who would otherwise be available for work have completely opted out of the labor market. The “official” unemployment rate is higher in some places and lower in others, but in all cases it excludes those who haven’t actively sought work in the past four weeks. What’s more, people are dropping out of the labor force or retiring despite a spike in health care jobs, many of which can be done from anywhere by just about anyone.
One explanation, as PBS contributor Paul Solman points out, is that those roles are typically “quite demanding, both emotionally and physically” and often constitute “low-end, low-pay” work. The same is true for many who do manage to stay put in the “employed” column by picking up part-time, low-pay jobs with few or no significant benefits.
It’s not that good work doesn’t exist: Just ask any hiring manager how hard it is to fill an open role. There are lots of jobs to be had, just not where many people actually live, particularly outside a handful of major metro areas. For years, even the best-intentioned tech companies have cited a bogus “pipeline problem,”claiming that there just aren’t enough qualified female engineers or African-American developers out there for them to hire. That’s never been the case—it’s just that businesses haven’t always known where to look, or looked hard enough.