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It’s time to get to work on jobs

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Do you remember your first job?

Outside of working on my family’s dairy farm, my first job was cleaning the meat department at a Safeway store in Dillon, Mont.

It was hard, messy work and it didn’t pay much, but I was OK with that — partly because I liked getting the paycheck, small as it was, and partly because I knew it wasn’t going to be my career.

As the debate heats up over raising Washington’s minimum wage, it’s worth remembering that entry-level jobs like the one I had were never intended to be life-long careers, or to be a family’s sole source of income.

In an ideal world, the people who fill them excel in their work and get promoted. They go to school and get the education they need to land a better-paying job somewhere else. They come up with a new idea and start their own business. Or they work part-time for a while to supplement a family’s income, knowing it’s just until their kids start school full-time or go off to college.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes people get stuck in a minimum wage job and wind up feeling hopeless, like there’s no path forward. A job that was supposed to be temporary becomes permanent. One part-time job isn’t enough, so they get a second, or maybe even a third.

We need to fix that, but arbitrarily mandating a $15 per hour minimum wage, as a union-led effort seeks to do for some airport-related jobs in SeaTac, or an $11.82 per hour statewide minimum wage, as Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed, is not the answer.

That’s treating the symptom — low pay — and not the cause — lack of opportunity. And it will wipe out a lot of small businesses, particularly in rural counties where high unemployment remains a much greater problem than it does in Seattle.

I’m not seeing how it could work,” said Sen. Jim Hargrove, a Democrat from Hoquiam, in response to the governor’s proposal. The unemployment rate in Grays Harbor County, where Hargrove lives, is hovering above 11 percent, compared to 5 percent in King County. “I know a lot of business owners who aren’t making the minimum wage,” Hargrove said. “It’ll just mean they have to lay people off.”

A better solution is to work on ways to expand opportunities for people in minimum-wage jobs to move up the ladder, to make sure they can move on from that job mopping the meat department floor into a true living-wage job.

Because here’s the thing: Even in these fragile economic times, there are good jobs to be had for people with the right skills.

One of the painful ironies of the Great Recession has been watching the unemployment rate soar at the same time that thousands of good-paying jobs were going unfilled, particularly in the manufacturing sector, simply because employers couldn’t find enough qualified workers to fill them.

That’s why the Association of Washington Business and our affiliate, the AWB Institute, are committed to working with the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and others to address the skills gap. In the interim, there are programs, grants and loans providing assistance to people in need of job training.

We want to help the this generation’s meat department cleaner move on to a career in aerospace manufacturing, agriculture, construction or computer programming — not just give him a couple dollars more per hour.

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce.