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Guest Column - The Say-Town Lowdown

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In mid-November, the first Tundra pickup trucks began rolling off the assembly line at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas. For San Antonio, the much-heralded arrival of Toyota was a development coup, with the promise of new jobs, a boost for Southside growth, and the potential for plant expansion. One local writer called it “the largest single part of an ongoing economic surge” for the city.

The 2,000 new jobs created by Toyota, and some 2,000 more from its related onsite suppliers, will be great for San Antonio. And much-needed. The first production at Toyota comes on the heels of a dramatic drop in local manufacturing employment. The Census Bureau’s annual County Business Patterns report counted 39,312 manufacturing employees in Bexar County for 1999. By 2004 (the latest data available), that had fallen to 31,832 — a loss of 8,000 jobs. Figures from the Texas Workforce Commission are a little different, but they tell almost exactly the same story, with a loss of 7,600 jobs from 2000 to the end of 2005.

For a city that has never had a large manufacturing sector, these labor losses have taken their toll, and businesses have been shuttered. Some involve longtime major employers, such as Levi Strauss. Others have come from more specialized firms, such as Pak-Mor, which manufactured garbage truck loaders; and firms like sunglass-maker Bausch & Lomb and can manufacturer Golden Aluminum were lured here by generous tax abatements and once deemed “successes.”

Perhaps the most telling losses have been among our few ventures into high-paying, high-tech manufacturing. The Control Data computer and hard-drive plants that anchored the Westside Vista Verde development near UTSA’s downtown campus are long gone, their buildings now filled with municipal courts and the central police substation. Our major computer-chip plants — VLSI/Phillips Semiconductor and AMD/Sony Microelectronics — have also shut down, a major blow to our high-wage job force. And for those with longer memories, there was also the long and sad tale of Datapoint.

San Antonio has often succeeded in luring manufacturing firms, with the promise of inexpensive labor and property-tax abatements. But those firms are subject to a host of market and competitive pressures, and they have often shifted their production to foreign plants or gone out of business entirely. Toyota, too, will be subject to those pressures, and its future here will depend not only on the success of its truck line, but also on the initiative, capacity, and productivity of its local labor force. Whether our new Toyota plant is at the forefront of a “surge,” or something smaller, is still very much open to question.

What isn’t open to question is where other cities are going, and how they are investing and competing for future economic success.

The front page of the New York Times last Saturday had a story headlined “Cities Compete in Hipness to Attract Young.” Its substance was that major cities are fighting to attract college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds, a well-educated labor force “increasingly viewed as the key to an economic future.” The “Young and the Restless,” as they have been dubbed, are a basic ingredient for urban competitiveness at a time when the skill and flexibility of the local labor force can offer far more toward economic vitality than tax abatements.

In the battle for well-educated young adults, San Antonio has simply not succeeded. Compared with a host of other major cities, we have long been behind in terms of an educated labor force. The 2004 American Community Survey put Seattle and San Francisco at the top of the educated-work-force list, with more than 50 percent of their adult population holding at least a bachelor’s degree. Austin ranked fifth with 45 percent. San Antonio, with 23 percent, came in 50th, just below Wichita, Kansas.

Of course, the cities that lure this coveted class of college-educated workers have attractive community features: robust educational and civic institutions and variegated work options found in Raleigh, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. explain why they had the highest concentrations of the “Young and the Restless,” in the 2000 Census. There’s a reason San Antonio placed so far down the list, too.

Making trucks is fine. But if we want to make other things, or succeed as a community in a 21st-century global economy, we’re going to have to build minds.

 


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