Chicago is having an identity crisis. Along with a local budget crisis and a State monetary crisis, there are seismic changes happening in the “City of Big Shoulders.” But first a little retrospective of the city:
Currently land once known as “South Works” and owned by U.S. Steel resides in Chicago on the Southeast side ensconced along the southern edge of Lake Michigan. To quote the Chicago Tribune “(T)he site — once employed 20,000 people.” The plant site encompasses 589 acres of land and has been vacant since 1992 when the steel plant finally shut down.
In the 19th century, Chicago was the meat packing center of the U.S. The meatpacking district was 475 acres in size and employed more than 25,000 people. Chicago coincidently also became the railroad capital of the country. It was the place where all east and westbound trains converged. To quote the Chicago Historical Society encyclopedia, “More lines of track radiate in more directions from Chicago than from any other city.” And over 30,000 Chicagoans worked for the railroads in the 1930s.
Besides meat packing, Chicago was also an important food processing center with companies such as Armour and Swift, plus the mail-order empires of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Eventually what happened to the displaced workers as these industries downsized, right-sized, out-sourced, closed down, merged, and retooled for technology and posterity?
Technology, innovation, cost, and demand influence an economy. The expansion of air flight allowed faster travel in shorter time spans. Instead of spending days traveling on the “rails”, one could fly the same distance in hours. The advent of mini-mills sealed the fate of massive complexes such as the “South Works” steel plant. The catalog giants Sears and Montgomery Wards moved from mail order to retail stores to almost extinction (Sears) or absolute oblivion (Wards). Changes in distribution and decentralization of meat distribution sealed the demise of the Chicago stock yards.
In the 20th century, Carl Sandberg poetically called Chicago the “city of big shoulders.” One could say it was in reference to its blue-collar citizenry. In the 21st century, Chicago’s high tech community is ignited because Chicago startups like Groupon are helping to reengineer Chicago’s identity from a rust-belt economy to a technology centered economy. The reason the label “rust belt” was coined was because the Midwest of the United States did not respond efficiently and/or expediently to changes in international trade as well as regional or national economic conditions.
Two references in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “Work Culture” and “Work” speak to how Chicago approached educating or vocationally preparing the young for the work world. There is no reference to any service or mechanism for retraining of the work person moving from one job to another. It is interesting to note that because of scientific management and the “division of labor” into very small tasks, an “unskilled” labor force was probably not seen as a negative influence on the local economy. A ‘blue-collar” worker could flow from one job to another fairly easily. Local “connections”, politics, and/or just plain luck landed you another job. Only as the post-industrial age advanced into the computer and now Internet Ages, are unbalances more and more noticeable between labor skills, job openings, and educational requirements of the workforce. It’s the ever increasing velocity of change and cacophony of choices to which changes respond, that are combining to challenge the definition of “job readiness” now.
One solution to Chicago’s ongoing labor vacuum might be another Washburne trade school type solution as mentioned here but with a 21st century “twist”.