Nearly three decades separate President Barack Obama's visit to Pittsburgh last week from President Ronald Reagan's visit here in 1983. Economic conditions in Pittsburgh in 1983 compared to those in 2011 are nearly mirror images of one another, yet in many ways the two messages were the same.
When Reagan landed in Pittsburgh in April 1983, he had arrived at the heart of the nation's economic upheaval. A deep national recession seemed unending, and the Pittsburgh region in particular appeared to be facing the abyss with unemployment rates peaking at 18 percent. Local unemployment rolls had reached 200,000, and it was not clear the economic cataclysm would ever end.
Today, the nation is emerging from what has been dubbed the "Great Recession," but Pittsburgh has remained the outlier in economic resiliency and stability. No longer the nation's laggard, local unemployment rates have remained lower than the nation's for a record four years and counting. Workers and families no longer flee the area, and regional real estate markets have sustained a steady appreciation unlike most anywhere else in the country.
President Reagan came to a very different Pittsburgh to address the National Conference on the Dislocated Worker. It was no coincidence such a gathering was held here, given the unprecedented destruction of local jobs and the growing army of angry unemployed workers across what soon would be called the Rust Belt.
Despite the job losses, though, some jobs were not being filled, Reagan noted. He cited the help wanted ads then appearing in newspaper classified sections:
"I'll read you the entire ad," he said. " 'System programmer -- large-scale IBM, VTAM, TSO/SPF, ACF, CICS, OS/MVS.' The point is that we're in a new age. No longer do the ads simply offer jobs with good hours and no heavy lifting. You have to be a specialist to know what the ad is even about."
Of course, the ever-quickening pace of technological change means that the perfect candidates for those cutting-edge jobs in 1983 would be unemployable Luddites today if those skills remained all that they knew. And this was Mr. Obama's point at Carnegie Mellon University. He focused on the importance of manufacturing to the U.S. economy and the fact that even manufacturing now relies on workers with sophisticated training and skills.
Nascent in Reagan's long-ago remarks was the still-novel idea that a region's competitiveness did not rely merely on its location or natural resources, but on the talents and capabilities of its labor force.
Southwestern Pennsylvania has relied for much of its history on advantages endowed upon it eons before George Washington arrived at the Point. The result was that the region in many ways failed to develop a labor force capable of adapting and changing when the decline in heavy manufacturing set in.
By the time Reagan delivered those remarks back in 1983, it was too late for many of the workers who would hear his message. For men trained all their lives for careers in the mills -- and they were almost all men -- the idea of transitioning into the most high tech and skilled occupations in demand was for most an unattainable fiction. Then and now the resources dedicated to worker retraining and education pale in the face of the need.
Have things changed that much?
As much as we now accept that the new economy depends on workers with advanced or specialized skills, we still want to skip back to an earlier time. Underinvestment in nearly all levels of formal education still defines where we are in the region and across Pennsylvania.
For a future workforce that will never have the career-long jobs that defined earlier generations, the ability to adapt to new skills and new jobs is the only way to ensure prosperity. Those skills only come from a baseline of education beginning in the earliest grades, yet nearly all of our school districts face mounting challenges. The additional resources needed to seriously enable older workers to adapt and retrain have never come close to being sufficient.
No doubt the costs are high to improve education and training systems, but the costs of ignoring investments in education will be much more burdensome in the long run.
Christopher Briem is a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research ( www.ucsur.pitt.edu ).