Jobs or protection of environment? Industrial policy must plan for both

On Chicago’s southeast side, like many communities in the country, there’s an ongoing debate about job creation and the impact of industry on the environment – and especially on communities of color.

That’s one strong reason why the City of Chicago needs to develop and embrace a more strategic industrial policy, says Erica Staley, Executive Director of Manufacturing Renaissance.

This topic was covered recently in a March 27, 2021 segment of  WTTW’s Latino Voices.

Chicago and other cities don’t face a choice between jobs and protecting the environment, Staley says. It can – and must –  have both. “We need good jobs, we need clean jobs – and we need it to be in the context of a much more regional perspective and not just pitting one community or community group against a business,” said Staley on the WTTW segment.

Data confirms unemployment, environmental challenges

“There is crisis-level unemployment, especially in black and brown communities and youth and young adult populations,” said Staley on WTTW. Extensive data compiled by the University of Illinois’ Great Cities Institute in recent years has documented the impact of unemployment (and lack of education) among young people of color in Chicago.

“Currently there are 58,000 manufacturing jobs that are unfilled,” Staley adds. “Overall, these are high-quality jobs that offer diverse career pathways – jobs in production, machining, STEM careers, engineering, robotics, IT, and even ownership. Manufacturing is really a strategic sector – especially in the context of global climate change and sustainable development.”

Meanwhile, a data map prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council clearly shows a familiar story: the southeast side bears an extremely high burden from environmental exposure that is closely tied to the presence of industry in the area.

The WTTW segment cited the recent passing of a Chicago City Council measure that tightened rules on industrial operations and recycling centers. In recent months, community residents also protested metal scrapper General Iron’s proposed relocation to the southeast side.

“This is a much bigger problem than any individual company or community can solve independently,” Staley said on WTTW. “This kind of development is happening in the context of decades of concentrated environmental pollution, especially in communities of color, as a result of institutionalized racism in zoning, and policies that guide where companies can go.”

Looking forward, Staley says that there’s an alternative. “Working together with the City, employers, educators, labor and community leaders, manufacturing is a strategic sector that could be leveraged to rebuild economically disenfranchised communities in the context of a sustainable development agenda.