Cleveland and Detroit – cities that have become shorthand for widespread urban failure – have nothing on Los Angeles when it comes to long-term decline in payroll jobs. Dead last among major U.S. cities, Los Angeles has lost a painful 3.1 percent of its payroll jobs since 1990, even as the population grew nearly 11 percent. By contrast, payroll jobs in the United States overall grew by 26 percent during the same period.
As the UCLA Anderson Forecast makes clear, the recent modest economic bounce masks a long-term jobs crisis. City government is staggering under a heavy burden of pension liabilities and neglected infrastructure. These burdens will crush us if we endure another two decades of job losses. It’s time for Los Angeles to wake up; in fact, it’s well past time.
There is a lesson to be learned in Northern California. The popular myth is that San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are booming with plentiful tech jobs, but of the region’s two biggest cities, San Jose has lost 3 percent of its job base since 2000 and San Francisco has gained a modest 1.5 percent. This highlights what happens when the transformative forces of global trade and the microprocessor are unleashed before we are fully prepared: terrific jobs, but only for the highly skilled.
Efforts to foster job growth must focus on multiple strategies. First, we need to attract, foster and retain the entrepreneurs, innovators and creative types who are driving economic growth in the postindustrial world. And we must nurture an educational system that can prepare the rest of us for good jobs in an increasingly globalized, technology-intensive world, where robots and microprocessors are displacing workers faster than the workers can be retrained. Robots work long hours for low wages in crummy working conditions – and they never join unions.
The attributes that once positioned Los Angeles as a global gateway city – and might yet again – are threatened. Ports, rail lines and highways are vital links in the transport of goods and raw materials, but traffic congestion, potholes, cracked sidewalks and aging bridges reduce the usefulness of this infrastructure that supports thousands of middle-class jobs.
Quality-of-life public infrastructure is also crucial to attracting talented creative types who have many options but choose to live where there can find quality affordable schools, nice neighborhoods, biking and hiking trails, and easy commutes. That no longer describes much of Los Angeles. The city grew up in an autocentric age, when the critical public assets were roads that quickly and easily got us to our far-flung private castles in the suburbs. Those roads are now jammed and few public or natural spaces survive. Yes, there’s Silicon Beach in Santa Monica and Venice, in part because the one thing we could not pave over was the ocean.