Stamatakis: New graduates should take a lesson from the Pirates

By Nick Stamatakis

The Great Recession and the John Cusack thriller “2012” both share similar philosophies and…The Great Recession and the John Cusack thriller “2012” both share similar philosophies and economic ideas.

It’s 2007 (or 2011) and everything is going great. Adjusting wages are keeping involuntary unemployment at zero and markets are properly valuing risky assets (or Los Angeles isn’t engulfed in flames). You can have a job (and Cusack can stick to capturing the attention of window-bound valedictorians).

Then one day the ground literally disappears from beneath your feet. An earthquake, or in the case of the economy, a gross misallocation of capital, has destroyed the calm. Cusack has to go from passively holding a boom box overhead to driving into the wilderness to save his family. Previously safe jobs in services and manufacturing disappear as the economy tumultuously shifts resources to other sectors aided by outsourcing and automation.

The time it takes to recover from this shifting constitutes a recession. I never saw “2012,” so I don’t know if Cusack’s character lived to see his family live a happy, fruitful life. Luckily, unlike in the movies, things in the economy tend to settle down pretty quickly: recessions are usually short enough that workers find other uses for their skills and eventually move to other sectors.

But the Great Recession of 2007 doesn’t seem to want to end. Month after month of anemic jobs numbers leads one to think we will forever be John Cusack, running from a giant ball of fire. Millions of displaced workers and future workers have not yet found their new sector in the economy.

This past summer has offered some new pop-culture insight into this phenomenon that suggests both good and bad prospects to those entering the job market. The good news is that markets do clear — eventually — and new sectors and technologies can provide a basis for success.

The bad news, however, is that it might take 20 years — just ask the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates’ death fall in the early ’90s, after all, was the result of the ground falling out from underneath them. The team was like today’s unemployed mill worker or former customer service agent. Everything they used to be good at was no longer valuable, and what everybody else had was driving success.

That thing everybody else had, of course, was money. The mid- to late ’90s saw the dominance of the New York Yankees, whose payroll alone could purchase the entire economy of the Oceanic island nation of Kiribati. Copycat teams needed to grow their payrolls, too. In this era of baseball, you needed cash to get ahead.

The severity and suddenness of this basic fact caught many small-market teams off guard. They couldn’t make the same strategic decisions as the big teams, yet had no other alternative strategies to cope with the new environment.

Luckily, this stagnation wasn’t permanent. Starting with the Oakland Athletics, teams slowly worked to find new, smarter, more efficient ways to win. This meant less focus on big, expensive hitters and more focus on developing young, often cheap, pitching talent. It meant teams had to fundamentally change everything about their growth strategies.

Today, the Pirates have lifted themselves off the cellar floor. While big money still undoubtedly dominates the game, small-market teams are proving there are other ways to thrive.

What are the lessons the American worker can learn from the Pirates? For one, change is a must. The recession has fundamentally transformed the necessary skill set required to be in the workforce. Jobs requiring a high school education are overseas. Computers do jobs requiring only good organizational skills or focus.

We need to learn how to add value in ways that only humans in America can add value. These value-added attributes are things like problem-solving skills — real ones, not fake resumé-quality skills — and communication skills. We need to learn how to be the Pirates, and find ways to make the most with what we have.

But the bad news from the realm of baseball is that the natural evolution from outdated and broken to efficient and successful is not guaranteed to be fast. It is always a case of two steps forward, one step back (or, to accurately describe the Pirates for the first 15 years, one step forward and off a cliff).

This insight is important in understanding the role government has in helping workers transition. Affluent business magnate Mark Cuban could have bought the Pirates and shoveled millions of dollars on a team, as it was speculated he would in 2009. We might have won more, but we would also be unprofitable — an unacceptable long-term solution. The potential Mark Cuban model was not unlike programs ranging from unemployment insurance extensions to increased food stamps — nobody would be getting closer to the new, improved versions of themselves they must inevitably become.

Instead, government should be all about transforming essential things concerning the way our society is structured. Strategies must change and adapt. Those solutions are too numerous to mention here, but all revolve around a key point: you must plan for tomorrow, not for today to never end.

And on that note, I guess “2012” and the economy are different.

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