Can Hampton Roads Diversify?

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Some would say that when you have close to two million people in a region a loss of around 6,000 jobs may not be that big of a deal. But they do not understand just how intertwined the jobs around here are. It was a big deal with Ford closed their plant in Norfolk, and that was only 2,400 jobs. Well Norfolk itself is about to take another hit with the closure of the Joint Forces Command; some of those jobs are going to be absorbed into the Pentagon but most may be eliminated permanently. The military to Hampton Roads is what Wall Street and the financial sector are to New York; there is still plenty of work but it pays a fraction of what the local economy’s “bread and butter” does and lacks the stability the key infrastructure had. 

I doubt that anyone is surprised as Obama said that he was going to clean house and make a lot of changes. The economy is still in disarray, despite the stimulus, and even though jobs are being added it isn’t enough and it is not enough to stop the bleeding that has occurred. At first it was clear that the federal government itself would continue to expand and if nothing else you could get a job in Washington DC. That may be good for the District and Northern Virginia, but that isn’t going to help Hampton Roads at all.

Any work you do for the government around here is going to be tied into the military, and when the size of the military shrinks, so do the opportunities. The regions call centers can and probably will absorb many of those laid off, but those opportunities, though there is the chance to get ahead, offer a fraction of what the lucrative jobs with the military do. Those who were used to making enough to live comfortably in the region may have to consider whether or not they want to earn less than half of that amount, or go to Arlington.

As had happened when Ford closed its plant in the region Norfolk appealed to those capable of reversing such a decision to rethink their options. Yet again, there may not be much that one can do. Can the military afford to trim its budget and remove operations in the region, does that weaken our military or is it extra money that the government is spending? The Joint Forces Command, in its current inception, has only been around since 1999. It was the United States Atlantic Command, since its origins in 1947 to 1993, and from 1993 to 1999 both the United States Air Forces Command and the Air Combat Command were under the umbrella. The Air Combat Command is still in Newport News, not far from Norfolk while the United States Air Forces Command is in Georgia.

If I understand this correctly, it would seem as if Robert Gates is suggesting that the Joint Forces Command is the redundant operation in that equation as there are already two other operations being performed elsewhere. I get the idea that the Joint Forces Command was around primarily because of increased funds for government spending that were either unsustainable at their current levels, or had not fully existed to begin with. In any event, the region cannot afford to take a hit. A few thousand jobs means that tens of thousands of other service workers do not have jobs. These will be people that cannot afford to stay at our hotels, buy up services, take advantage of retail, afford housing or any of the other amenities that are offered in this region. 

The only area that spends more on the military and has more of this type of work than this region does is California. Areas like San Diego in particular, are a West Coast version of Hampton Roads. In fact San Diego will have even more of our military jobs given the closure of the Joint Forces Command. Well there you have it, even fewer military jobs in this region exacerbating the need for the area to diversify and give young people that graduate from schools in the area more of a reason to stay here. I am not sure if the jobs are going to return to the area or not, but the region is going to have to find a way to continue to grow when the military cannot provide the work it depends on. I know that the country as a whole is trimming back and getting back to basics, but I wasn’t expecting the same to happen in this region. Perhaps I was in denial and just figured that the area would continue to have a lot of jobs in the military forever …


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