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CPBJ Extra Blog

The story of job(s): the key to manufacturing/warehousing

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Every Realtor knows the key to marketing property is location. The word holds a magical and unspoken value in the world of real estate.

I am starting to think "jobs" is reaching that same level of rarefied reverence in the manufacturing and warehousing sectors. Maybe it's because of the still lagging economy, but I don't think so.

Every developer wants to promise jobs. And every politician wants to deliver jobs. Depending on the number that precedes it, the very word "jobs" holds the potential to make a bad plan look passable and a good plan look great.

I have covered a lot of commercial development plans in 20 years and heard a lot of promises of jobs. Some came true, but many didn't.

The power of the jobs promise is currently in play in Cumberland County, where the opposition is questioning the quality of jobs promised by Goodman Birtcher. The number is 900. Company officials claim 900 jobs will be created by its plans for 2.5 million square feet of warehouses.

The plan includes four warehouses, the two largest in Dickinson Township. The property also lies in South Middleton and West Pennsboro townships, as well as Carlisle.

Warehousing is not manufacturing, a point nearly everyone concedes. Warehouse workers don't produce anything but merely move goods in and out the door by filling orders. I suppose that makes the operation a little less permanent in the community.

But the jobs are not always bad jobs. I spent one summer while in college filling book orders at a Penguin Putnam warehouse. The place was clean, the pay was decent and the warehouse put food on the table for a lot of families for more than 20 years.

But Goodman Birtcher opponents do not agree. They are citing a 2010 study concluding that 63 percent of warehouse jobs are filled by temporary workers making $9 per hour. The majority of warehouse workers live in poverty and 37 percent take a second job to get by, the report concludes.

Naturally, Goodman Birtcher representatives are discrediting the report, noting it was done in Illinois from a survey of 319 workers.

"The study they cite as evidence is not credible, and the statistics they cite do not reflect the current reality of wages and jobs in logistics and warehouses in Cumberland County," said Tom Ahern, spokesman for Goodman Birtcher.

Ahern said May 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics for Cumberland County show shipping and receiving employees make an average of $14.20 per hour, while material-moving workers make an average of $15.38 per hour.

So who is right? It's hard to say. I've seen those bad $9-per-hour jobs as well. The quality of the Goodman Birtcher jobs — if the plan is approved — will depend on who takes up residence in the warehouses.

Perhaps a bigger question is whether we even need 900 jobs of any kind. In December 2013, the county's unemployment dropped to 5.3 percent, well below the national average of 6.7 percent and lower still from the state's 6.9 percent unemployment rate.

According to economist William T. Dickens, the full-employment unemployment rate varies a lot over time but equaled about 5.5 percent of the civilian labor force during the 2000s.

If accurate for Cumberland County, then it is very close to full employment. And maybe we're so blinded by the word "jobs" that we are losing our focus.

Jobs are great, but where are these warehouse workers going to come from?

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