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City Council: Don’t let posturing distract from priorities

Downtown Seattle from Pier 91. Credit: Photo: Flickr user 2namod

These are trying times to be a member of the Seattle City Council. First, the change to district council elections in 2015 has created great uncertainty in political plans. Second, the election of Kshama Sawant to the council, her push for a $15 minimum wage and foregoing much of her council salary (she’s only accepting $40,000 out of the $117,000, contributing the rest to political causes), is challenging everyone’s Leftie bonifides.

Councilmembers are dealing with lots of changes all at once. Including fending off Councilmember Sawant’s charge (in a January 27 press release) that “Every Councilmember faces a choice of who they represent and which world they inhabit.”

Her message is clear and consistent and it's probably making councilmembers a little crazy.

So, what is the policy impact of these shifting dynamics? How will councilmembers respond?

We got a taste last week at a Council Briefing on the economic value of the maritime industry to Washington state.

On January 21st, Port of Seattle Commission Co-President Courtney Gregoire and Chris Mefford from Community Attributes, Inc. presented findings from Mr. Mefford's Washington State Maritime study released in late 2013. Councilmembers Sally Clark and Tim Burgess invited Commissioner Gregoire to the briefing in order to shore up relations that have been strained recently by the proposed NBA arena in the Duwamish Manufacturing Industrial Center as well as potential zoning changes.

The briefing was intended to share the good news that the maritime cluster is thriving and there are great maritime and career opportunities for young people in Seattle and throughout the region.

That was Burgess and Clark’s hope anyway.

Enter Port Commissioner Gregoire, bringing the good news that the state’s maritime industry contributed $30 billion to the state’s economy in 2012, with an average annual salary of $70,800. Revenues grew by 18.4 percent between 2000 and 2012. And yes, that time period includes the recession. You can read the full report here.

The report should have been welcome news at a time when many are conceding we’re doomed to a low wage service economy and an ever-eroding middle class — especially in large cities like Seattle. What this study shows is that the maritime sector is more than pulling its weight, producing jobs for people who may not choose to attend a 4-year college and would rather learn a skill and work at sea, in shipyards and repair, in logistics or any number of other comparable occupations.

Policymakers at all levels of government and education have been slow to prioritize workforce training and the kinds of skills businesses need in the maritime and manufacturing workforce. There has been a bias toward preparing every child for college, but neglecting to prepare them for work. A certain amount of elitism is at work here — minimizing the value and skill in these blue collar jobs that put seafood on our tables, build and repair our ships, and deliver the goods and fuel we use every day.

It is possible that showing maritime’s $30 billion impact to the state economy and average wage of $70,800 per year salary could have changed minds and opened a substantive dialogue about how to get kids in Seattle excited and connected to these opportunities.

Unfortunately, Seattle City Councilmembers had another agenda. (You can view the back-and-forth here.) Concilmember Jean Godden immediately changed the subject to ask about the gender wage gap: “Is the maritime industry part of the problem?”

“How come the study didn’t touch on gender and race?” asked Councilmember Sawant. “I don’t know if this is an industry of opportunity or not,” remarked Councilmember Bruce Harrell. And Councilmember Mike O’Brien only wanted to talk about the SeaTac minimum wage issue.

But the final comment by Bruce Harrell was the kicker: “I always hear how supportive we are to the maritime industry. Nice to see you in a non-adversarial setting.” Huh?

The posturing and preening by a council mostly concerned with making political points would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing. The questions that weren’t asked: What can we do to help attract and retain businesses to the cluster? Are there zoning, transportation and regulatory issues holding us back? Is there a way we can leverage the Family and Education Levy to connect schools and businesses? What is being done now in education locally?

Had they asked, they might have learned that maritime and manufacturing businesses are helping develop skill centers around the state. These STEM-Based learning programs provide math, materials science and technology instruction at high schools around the state. Two years ago there was just one test site in Yakima. Now there are 30 high schools around the state, including a Seattle District-wide program based at Rainier Beach. Plans are underway to add a second program at Ballard High School focused on marine technology, adding to their existing maritime program.

This is a national trend, as more people are realizing that education is about readying kids for school and work. A January 22nd PBS Newshour story highlighted the skills gap and a program in Illinois called Work Keys that helps young people learn skills and connect them to employers in manufacturing.

An Illinois high school math teacher interviewed nearly breaks into tears. “I’m not told to have them job-ready. I’m told to have them college ready,” she explains. And, because a high percentage of these kids aren’t going to college, she is teaching them that which they will never use. She knows it and the kids know it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A diverse economy means we need to meet kids where they are and understand that different kids have different interests. There are jobs for everyone if we can match kids to skills and businesses.

There is no silver bullet to solve this issue, but the maritime industry is making inroads. Vigor Shipyards is investing in training, as are Boeing and many other manufacturing and maritime companies. The Manufacturing Industrial Council under the leadership of Dave Gering has established close working relationships with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction as well as Seattle Schools Superintendent Jose Banda. More good news is on the way.

It would have been nice to have a more substantive discussion with the City Council about these issues. Perhaps it will have to wait until we get through the political shakeup happening now. But the maritime industry is not waiting. Jobs need to be filled in a workforce that is graying and retiring. Hopefully, elected officials will want to take part.

 

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