Seven Short Essays On The Rhode Island Economy

As Rhode Island’s economy struggles along, I’ve wanted to write several essays on the situation. Sadly, doing my part in the regional economy has me a bit over my head still…yes, even 18 months in. The ship of [redacted] turns, but slowly.

So instead of boring RI Future readers with 7,000 words, here are seven very brief essays on the RI Economy.

November Numbers

Three months does not make for a strong trend, but all the meaningful employment figures are at multi-year highs/lows. The workforce has regained its levels from February 2011, having regained about half of the losses from it’s 2006/2007 all-time peak. Employment is at a level not seen since March 2009, but it has only regained 20% of losses from the peak. Finally, unemployment is at its lowest since April 2009, tracking inverse to employment about 20% of the way from the peak to the recent low.

Geek that I am, I’m anxiously awaiting the December 2012 figures in a few weeks’ time and hoping for signs the trend will continue.

What We Don’t Know

We know that about 40,000* 60,000 people in Rhode Island are listed as unemployed per the U3 number. We can project that the U6 number (broadest definition of “unemployment”) about doubles that.  What we don’t know is who they are or why they can’t find work.

One reason for this lack of insight might be that the organization that would be able to provide deeper demographic data is the  Department of Labor & Training – the same organization that has to manage this exceptionally high number of unemployed people.

It would be great to know more, but by the time DLT has the bandwidth, nobody will care any more.

A Hiring Anecdote

I recently hired for a position at [redacted] advertising it on the RI Craigslist and some other places. I even did some personal social media outreach. It’s a good job: entry level on an executive path, salary in the mid 30s and at a cool company but about 25 miles from Providence.

I expected to be overwhelmed with resumes; I got 12. Of the lot, three merited call backs. One had more experience than we needed and declined on the salary. The other two interviewed, and one was not that impressive. The last one, though, was a gem just out of JWU. Our new employee is doing a great job for us, but does anybody wonder why I got 12 resumes for seriously good job?

Our Brand

My entire professional life has centered around creating communications channels between organizations and individuals, then creating content on behalf of the organization and interacting with individuals…I think they call that “branding”.

Such success as I’ve enjoyed is due in part to my basic understanding of how this game is played – the market tells you what your brand is, not the other way around. Specifically:

  1. If you tell people your brand is something it’s not, you lose
  2. If you tell people they are wrong about what they think your brand is, you lose
  3. If you tell people your brand is what it actually is, you might win
  4. If you let people tell you what your brand actually is, you win

Of the four scenarios, two are straight-up losers, one gives you a shot and one is a gimme. Naturally, virtually all VPs of Corporate Communications and their analogs in government prefer the first two options to the third, which they’ll take after the first two fail. And as for listening to the marketplace, well that’s SOCIALISM!

This long-winded introduction sets up the following eye-opening (for me) insight that came from a visitor last summer. A friend of the wife was visiting from out of town, and they dropped by while I was working the Narragansett Beer Neighbor Days in Luongo Square on the west side. I was too busy to talk, but after the gig he told me:

“Never before have I seen so many beards, tattoos, dogs and cigarettes all in one place at the same time.”

Like it or lump it, Providence, this is our brand.

Lifestyle Companies

Lifestyle companies are not lifestyle brands that support a particular lifestyle. Lifestyle companies are companies – small, usually family-owned – that serve as the basis for the lifestyles of the owner/workers.

The term comes from the venture capital space and serves to differentiate these companies from “investable” companies. The difference is one of scale and growth. Lifestyle companies favor control and stability; thus, they do not seek explosive growth or the venture capital to drive it.

I actually heard it said by a muckety muck inside the EDC that “if Rhode Island became the capital of lifestyle companies, there’s a lot worse fates in life.”

You know what…? That sounds like a plan.

Honoring the Trades

As the living embodiment of east coast liberal elitism, it frequently shocks Righty when I start talking about sweating copper piping, pulling cable and wiring receptacles, etc. It usually turns out I’ve done a lot more physical labor and skilled trades work than Righty has. (Not for nothin’, but they  call the GOP “the country club set”.)

Here’s my beef – pissing on the trades and tradespeople is a bipartisan effort. There’s this general idea in the US that a “good job” is like the one I describe above – inside, wearing nice clothes and sitting in front of a computer. Except that a licensed plumber with 4 solo technicians should pull in about $1,000,000 annually, pay each employee less than $100,000 and divide the rests with Uncle Sam.* [*See my comment below.] Not too shabby.

Unless something radical has occurred in the last couple of years, Rhode Island imports welders. Not nuclear engineers; welders. Welding is both dangerous and lucrative. Welding is why we not only have but absolutely need unions*. Welding underwater is really dangerous and really lucrative.

My point is that the continuous derogatory references to non-office work degrade its perceived value but increase its actual cost. Is a small plumbing shop really a million-dollar-a-year business or are prices for plumbers higher than necessary because we lack plumbers but have lots of old toilets?

The Downside of Small

I close with this stunning revelation: Rhode Island is small. Because our state is so spectacularly small, we are far more dependent on our neighbors than they are on us. Granted, the Providence metro is essential to southeastern Mass and western Connecticut. But people in Norwalk, Springfield and Boston really don’t care.

Our economy is inextricably linked to those of our neighbors, yet our leaders like to pretend that it’s not. (And kudos here to the Speaker for having both CT and MA represented at his event.) Many times, interesting conversation end abruptly when I say, “No, just over the line in Mass.”

Until we accept the regional nature of our economy and the imbalance in dependency on our neighbors, we cannot possibly craft optimal policy for shared prosperity.

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Author of Yesterday on the Internet: Diary of a Cultural Warrior from Light Publications. Avoid at all costs and report activities to the appropriate authorities.

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