CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa- Manufacturing jobs in the Midwest have declined for years as a percentage of total employment. But how have industrial cities in the Midwest, like Cedar Rapids, responded to that trend?
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago spent several years compiling data and comparing ten Midwestern cities as part of an Industrial Cities Initiative. The cities profiled included Aurora and Joliet in Illinois, Fort Wayne and Gary in Indiana, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo in Iowa, Grand Rapids and Pontiac in Michigan and Green Bay and Racine in Wisconsin.
The report didn’t rank cities. But it did look at how communities adapted to changing economic conditions such as a significant loss of manufacturing jobs over the years.
The study found manufacturing jobs in Cedar Rapids amounted to 35 percent of total area employment in 1950. By 2010, that percentage had dropped to 17%. The study concluded that was about average for the so-called “rust belt” cities in the Midwest.
One conclusion from the report for Cedar Rapids and the nine other cities is manufacturing will never occupy the same place it did decades ago in the employment picture. But manufacturers will still need and hire those with special skills — like welders. Aaron Seaton is taking a welding class at Kirkwood Community College right now specializing in welding skills to apply to a maintenance position in manufacturing. Seaton, when told of the study, said it doesn’t deter him from looking for jobs in that field.
“As far as jobs go, there are maintenance jobs out there. It needs hands on skills and guys like us can do it,” Seaton said.
Kirkwood and up to two dozen manufacturers formed an Advanced Industry Sector Board in recent years to map out better job training for future positions. The study noted that was a method of adapting that seemed to show promise.
Amy Lasack, Senior Director of Corporate Training for Kirkwood Continuing Education, said nothing will ever bring back the days or walking onto a factory floor and landing a good paying job. But that doesn’t mean manufacturing job opportunities will keep shrinking.
“I think there is opportunity for growth there. But the jobs won’t look the same. Jobs are so much more high tech — more of a need for math and different skill sets. So the jobs while growing in the manufacturing fields won’t be the same ones that were here 20 years ago,” Lasack said.
The study noted economic and city leaders in Cedar Rapids have taken steps over the years to diversify the local economy. Strengths were noted in areas like food processing and the processing of corn into ethanol.
But researchers also determined that a large portion of jobs in the community were also in the food service category. At a median hourly wage of $8.90 that was well below what was considered a “living wage” in Cedar Rapids.
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