Innovation clusters are great, but Richard Florida says it’s time for the worker bees to get a raise

Rock star urbanologist Richard Florida was on NPR this morning, preaching something of the flip-side of UC-Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti’s take on the importance of clustering brain power in order to create innovation hubs.

Now, it’s hardly a cage-match between the two authors and noted scholars. Moretti points out that there are a relative few clusters, where smart people who invent stuff congregate in the United States.

He’ll get no argument there from Florida. But Florida focuses on those who are on the outside looking in. He calls the brainiacs the creative class. The others are the service class, the people who do most of the work in the United States.

“The first thing that is clear is that a city or a metro region is much better off if it has a large share of knowledge workers,” Florida told NPR this morning. “The wages and incomes of that city go up. The problem is that others have said that this has a trickle down effect. I’ve been skeptical of that from the beginning. “

In fact what happens, Florida says, is the wage gap between the have and the have-nots tends to widen in areas with a bounty of creative class workers — defined by Florida as “those in science and technology, business and management, arts, culture, media, and entertainment, law, and healthcare professionals.”

It makes me wonder whether that very thing is going on in Silicon Valley. Did you see George Avalos’ Merc story on Joint Venture Silicon Valley’s latest index, a gauge of the economic health of the valley?

Job growth is going bonkers and incomes are on the rise, the experts say. But not in any even way. While Asians and whites are doing extremely well, incomes for blacks and Latinos are actually falling — by as much as 18 percent in the case of black residents. Joint Venture didn’t have an explanation, but Florida might.

Here’s Florida’s look in The Atlantic at Chicago through the lens of creative class and service class.

So what to do?

“Sooner or later we’re going to have to develop strategies in our country to boost the wages and salaries of the more than 60 million workers who deliver our services, who prepare our food, take care of  our houses, work in our stores. We’re going to have to make their wages higher if everyone is going to prosper.”

Before you start screeching about “nation of takers,” Florida isn’t pushing handouts for those who do the work in the country. He wants employers to get together and figure out how they can boost wages, presumably by making workers more productive and thereby more valuable.

We did it with manufacturing, Florida notes.

“In the early 20th century, we treated our manufacturing workers like crap,” Florida told NPR. Then during the Great Depression, he continued, industrialists like Henry Ford and others figured out they could make more money if more people could afford to buy what they were selling.

Employers started listening to workers, who actually know a lot about the work they do. They have ideas. They know how to make improvements.

Florida’s advice? Companies should be “listening to the workers and making them part of the solution not just in factories, not just in Silicon Valley high-tech work, but in all sorts of work. That’s the path to prosperity in the future.”

You got that boss? Don’t treat your workers like crap. And listen up.




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