Federal Way has become an economic ugly duckling

Can this city fill its vacant office buildings and attract a few high-end anchor corporations to re-establish a solid middle-class core?

The majority of us treat the Labor Day holiday as a three-day weekend. It seems to have lost its significance.

Labor Day as a celebration began in the 1880s to recognize the capabilities of this nation’s labor force, the prosperity they helped create while developing a sense of unity for the working class. This was the era of the great industrial robber barons, and employees generally worked 70-plus hour work weeks under some very tough conditions with few labor laws and no real thought for safety.

While some of the day’s origins dealt with recognizing the successes of industrialized production, it was primarily a way for workers to organize, advocate for better working conditions, higher wages, shorter workdays, job security and education. The changes that labor advocated for and won in the 19th and 20th centuries created a strong middle class and a more balanced society economically.

One of the 20th century’s best-known authors on the subject of work, Studs Terkel, stated:

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Today’s workforce might be considered soft if measured by 19th and 20th century standards. But even in today’s work-a-day world, not all jobs are easy and minimum wage is, in many communities, below poverty level.

So, what does the future of work look like in Federal Way? Can this city fill its vacant office buildings and attract a few high-end anchor corporations to re-establish a solid middle-class core? What are the value changes we need to make at the local level to improve our schools and become a 21st century business core?

Jobs in America and elsewhere are being altered by computerization, robotics and automation driven by skilled programmers and advances in artificial intelligence. As business-friendly deregulation and tax laws have facilitated offshoring of production, our politicians give lip service to concepts of job protection while they pursue free markets and engage in trade wars for political and personal benefit. Labor as a movement has lost its voice, its way, and is being drowned out by free market capitalism on steroids.

Federal Way is like many cities and towns across America, suffering from a lack of job growth and prosperity. Our lack of significance in the marketplace is showcased by empty office space and buildings looking for tenants. The economic engine that helped build this city’s middle class is gone and the residents who helped build the city are aging out of the workforce. As they move on, their homes are being filled by a new generation.

The millennial generation seems to separate into two camps. One that is highly educated and capable of working in the high-tech contract world, able to pursue lucrative professional jobs, or operate as high-end entrepreneurs. The other seems to have four components: educated but not working in high-paying jobs, not educated with no real prospects except minimum wage jobs, working as essential core skilled tradesmen, and a quality group of small business owner/operators. Many of these jobs lean to the side of being temporary and financially inconsistent.

Predicting the future of a city is challenging, but Federal Way does not seem to be attracting the high-end, successful, employee-entrepreneur types and quality job generators. Those jobs continue expanding their footprint in Seattle or major Eastside cities. Why so little interest in the Weyerhaeuser headquarters campus that was supposed to be the ace that Federal Way held up its sleeve for its economic development future?

Looks like the only development opportunities being considered at the moment for that iconic campus are warehouses that offer low-end jobs. Federal Way got dealt a bad hand and its ace is starting to look like a joker. So, what does Federal Way do to refocus and redefine itself as a city that is worthy of high-end economic relocation and entrepreneurial consideration?

Quality jobs do not arrive or come to communities because communities want and need them. Federal Way, like it or not, has become an economic ugly duckling. The hardest piece of the attractiveness puzzle for residents and community leaders to appreciate is that something is missing.

My observation is that Federal Way is becoming an also-ran city, with no clear focus, and a “we can’t do that attitude.” Talking about economic development is one thing, but if we want to be “jobs central,” we need to change our negative energy persona.

The lucrative jobs of the future that create solid middle- to upper-income communities begin with a commitment to education, the arts, community aesthetics, easy access to quality amenities, the synergy of supporting local businesses as well as one another. Schools and education are at the heart of building that positive sense of purpose. We need to find that commitment. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Labor Day represents a historical path showcasing that commitment. Our future requires becoming a community elevated by human collaboration, using intelligently the building blocks of common values. Labor Day may be a three-day weekend to you, but building a better community is a 365-day-a-year effort. We need to own that effort.

Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at keithlivingstondesign@gmail.com.