Washington must welcome heavy industry to hedge service sector instability

factory worker
Choices made by our leaders have distanced us from building and sustaining a diverse, thriving, and rooted hard sector economy. Photo: rooseveltinstitute.org

The great recession has greatly receded across much of Washington state. Although rural Washingtonians lag their metropolitan counterparts, the average household is experiencing at least some benefits from the current economic boom.

In areas such as King County, the 2008 collapse may be just a hazy, bad memory, the forgetting made easier by the rush of fast-paced job growth, most of which is taking place within the service and information sectors.

In fact, the heyday is so intoxicating it appears some feel free to ignore a looming problem. While the state economy is moving better, it’s on a sketchy trajectory – and has been for decades. Lawmakers and executives are quickly eroding Washington’s large-scale building and development industry. They do so at our peril.

A diverse economic base is critical to Washington’s fiscal wellbeing. Currently, too many jobs are not as firmly rooted here as we believe, particularly in a global economy in which labor moves quickly and technology provides ways to untether work from location constraints.

Many Washingtonians remain giddy about the free-wheeling, low-risk/high-reward payoffs we can get by playing the field among quasi-migratory service sector companies, while also showing intolerance to the kinds of hard industries that are intrinsically less of a flight risk because of the substantial investments in physical capital.  Choices made by our leaders have distanced us from building and sustaining a diverse, thriving, and rooted hard sector economy.

In fact, it’s not clear that we even value that goal anymore.

It’s only a matter of time before we pay the price. The first major setback looms on the horizon.

Even when the Seattle collective finds a way to de-escalate hostilities with Amazon, it will still be impossible to un-see the vision of an Amazon-less city that was revealed during the melee.  In an instant, an epiphany: service sector companies like Amazon are especially well-suited to making a quick exit if conditions make doing so a rational choice.

No heavy machinery.

No need for specialized factory space.

No cumbersome, protracted regulatory issues – environmental or otherwise – to set up shop.

The threat of Amazon leaving Seattle is credible.  Contrast that with a hypothetical quick retreat by a hard sector company such as Boeing.  For all the dabbing of brow-sweat over the years, fretting over an aerospace exodus, such an apocalyptic thing was never a real possibility. Reinvesting in facilities, infrastructure, and mass-scale manufacturing equipment doesn’t happen overnight.

If only because hard industries make slower exits, encouraging a better mix between service and heavy industry businesses would help mitigate the threat (or reality) of tech sector evacuations.

Unfortunately, the state has given mixed signals by talking a good game about the beauty of making long-term mutual investments, while maintaining toward heavy industry the posture of terminal bachelorhood, the sad point at which too many years of stubborn avoidance of commitments, investments and trade-offs have become ingrained behavior.

So now, the word is out on Wall Street: Washington is virtually closed off to heavy industry.

Were William Boeing playing the field in today’s regulatory and political environment, would he “marry” Seattle?  A flourishing enterprise of any kind is a precious thing – anyone who has run a business knows this.  Even a dazzling bouquet of tax incentives might not be enough to encourage him to commit to the Washington state of today, as surely he would find a partner who would view his tidy but chemical-filled workplace as a constant issue to natter on about.

Lawmakers and executives need to focus on sensible policies that support conditions for diverse job growth. They must choose to lead. A good place to start would be working with employers rather than capitulating to economic radicals, while also setting a course to restore our reputation as a safe place for large-scale industry to make sizable investments.

Washington’s continued success hinges on a diverse economic base. Leaders must get serious about reforming the state’s intolerance for large-scale industrial development.  Future generations will thank those who take up the call.

Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008, and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.

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