But the question is what Democrats should say. The biggest problem Democrats face now, and will face in the future, is that there are no simple solutions to the economic crisis in the Rust Belt. Democrats have tried, with proposals like infrastructure projects, science and technology education, and tax credits for companies that offer apprenticeships, but few of the policy prescriptions that could begin the process of getting millions of white, working-class men back to work are very sexy. “There’s no silver bullet,” Ned Hill, a professor at Ohio State University and the faculty affiliate for the Ohio Manufacturing Institute, told me. “This is an adult conversation so easy answers aren’t there.”
Hill says that one way to create jobs in the Rust Belt is to bolster apprenticeship programs so that unskilled workers can get trained in some of the hundreds of thousands of jobs now going unfilled. Another is to model the manufacturing system on the one in Germany, where public-private institutes translate research into potential commercial products, and detailed educational pathways help train students for jobs that will be in demand. “We’ve lost the ability to train a sophisticated manufacturing workforce,” he said. One-fifth of the German workforce is employed in manufacturing—double the U.S.’s share.
Indeed, many of the economists I talked to when looking for answers for the Rust Belt mentioned retraining. After all, the Rust Belt lost manufacturing jobs, but it enjoyed growth in other industries. While the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, saw manufacturing employment fall 30 percent—losing 1.4 million manufacturing jobs between 1996 and 2016—employment in health and educational services grew 43 percent in those states over the same time period, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What’s more, the U.S. is about to go through a boom period as technologies such as robotics, self-driving cars, and genomics mature, says Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution. Cities such as Pittsburgh, a robotics center, and Milwaukee, which has become a pioneer in water technology, will add jobs related to these technologies and the industries that help support them.
“It takes a bit more sophistication to be thinking through this stuff than, ‘All trade deals are bad,’ he told me. “We’re talking about the interplay of R&D, entrepreneurial growth, trade, and infrastructure, and there are a lot of different pieces to it.”
Still, terms like public-private partnerships, infrastructure investment, and workforce development don’t exactly excite people. And the idea of retraining men who had worked in manufacturing for jobs in healthcare or education often isn’t an appealing prospect. Many workers don’t show up for free retraining courses, as I’ve written about before, sometimes because the prospect of going back to school is intimidating, other times because they fear there won’t be jobs once their retraining is over. “The idea of ‘training people’ is a wimpish answer—there are only so many people who can do air conditioning repair,” Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, told me. “The question is, how are we going to get jobs that make people feel proud again.”