The Rust Belt is Becoming More Innovative

The last time most people heard about the Rust Belt, it was bad news. The economy was plummeting, people were moving away, those who were staying were angry. If asked about the Rust Belt, most would conjure up images of abandoned buildings in downtown Detroit or the crumbling infrastructure of some factory that went out of business fifteen years ago. For most people, the Rust Belt is a dreary place to imagine, full of boarded-up windows and restless unemployed (or underemployed) former factory workers full of bitterness. It’s a hopeless place in this imagining.

Well, that image is out of date. The Rust Belt is making a comeback.

According to Fortune magazine, cities like Pittsburgh and Akron are becoming centers of innovation. While the idea of innovation tends to get lumped with other parts of the country (Silicon Valley, New York, and Austin, for instance), there’s a lot of great ideas coming out of the Rust Belt region. Pittsburgh, to give a big example, is using its former factory knowledge to move into robotics. Akron is using its old tire-making knowhow to work in polymers and other materials to help design self-driving cars.

Such innovation and economic rebirth should be applauded, although it comes with a couple big negatives. First, such businesses employ nowhere near the same number of people, nor do they employ many of the people who need work most. Those who work on the innovation side of things are highly educated, and the positions required are a small portion of those who would have been needed to run a factory.

The second issue is more general. There are still risks to working in such areas. While innovation labs may not be as dangerous as factories can be, working with hazardous chemicals—as all these industries do—can lead to accidents, injuries, and workers’ compensation problems if everything isn’t handled carefully. There’s always the risk of spills and exposures.

Fortune suggests a solution for both these issues, however: retrain old Rust Belt workers to become experts in new precision work. With such a large and nearly qualified labor force available, retraining former factory workers could all the production side (versus the exclusive innovation and design side) to flourish more quickly. Such old hands would also be more experienced handling the risks associated with production work with hazardous materials as well.

While even with production soaring, it would still be unlikely every old worker would find a new job, moving in the retraining direction would at least get us halfway back to such fulfilling and lucrative employment. It would bring more money into those Rust Belt cities that desperately need it, and it may encourage others to move from Silicon Valley to the region where people still know how to get stuff produced.

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