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Why Obama Should (or Maybe Shouldn’t) Go to New Jersey

Nate Lentz
September 27, 2011

I was in New Jersey last week driving from an interesting meeting with a new investment opportunity and headed to meet with one of our CEOs when I had to stop for gas.  Now, it should be noted that I almost never buy gas in New Jersey.  In fact, when I know I am headed for the Garden State, I stop to top off my tank to make sure I never need gas while I am there.  The reason should be clear to anyone who travels often in New Jersey – and it is not the price of gas because gas is actually cheap in New Jersey.  As I sat in my car waiting for the man who was supposed to be pumping my gas to finish washing the window of the person behind me so that he could process my credit card, a number of thoughts ran through my mind.   . .  .  . I hate waiting for someone else .  .  .  .   Why am I buying gas, I might make it home on fumes.  .  .  .  .  Who would want this job pumping gas?   .  .  .  .  Obama should come to New Jersey.   Yes – Obama should come to New Jersey.

First, let me say that there is nothing wrong with pumping gas.   I served my time pumping gas at the 12 Mile & Evergreen Shell outside of Detroit the summer after graduating high school.  People pumping gas in NJ are working, mostly working hard, and are trying to get by.   I salute them.   I did it to earn money for college in a tough Detroit economy of 1981, and had the added bonus of three shirts with “Nate” in script across the pocket.  It looked more like “Mate”, so some people thought I was Australian and others thought it was the wish of a recent high school graduate.  Even in 1981, at 12 Mile & Evergreen Shell we had two self-serve lanes and two full-serve lanes, and full serve customers paid $0.20 more per gallon.  Self-serve technology was new and people were slow technology adopters, so full-serve was busy and I had a job.  As consumers became more comfortable with the self-serve model and technology continued to evolve, particularly with the invention of card readers at the pump, as we all know, the jobs available for gas pumping declined to almost non-existent, except in New Jersey.

So why should Obama come to New Jersey?   Because there is a law in New Jersey that states that people cannot pump their own gas.  Truly – in 2011, this law remains.   As I drove on after my 22 minute gas stop (with no lines), I started to see the brilliance of the state.  It came to me that there are really two ways out of the job creation crisis, and New Jersey is highlighting one great solution.  It would involve the president doing the following:

  • Outlaw self-serve gasoline – creating all those gas pumping jobs
  • Outlaw ATMs – creating many more teller jobs
  • Outlaw EZPass – creating toll collector jobs
  • Outlaw Self-Pay Parking – putting people back in those booths
  • Bar executives from typing their own emails – bringing back the traditional roles of the steno pool and the secretary
  • Eliminate robotics from manufacturing – bringing people back to the manufacturing lines
  • Limit the size of a farm to 100 acres – restoring America’s past as an agrarian society where 46% of the US population used to farm

It sounds crazy – but these jobs still exist in other countries where the labor to capital trade-off has different outcomes.  We could legislate the same jobs back into our economy.   Sounds crazy – but I am sure there are member of congress who would support this.

This doesn’t feel like the best idea to solve our current sluggish job growth, even if you put aside my impatience at the gas pump.  What’s the other choice?  It’s called education and retraining.  Educate our children for the jobs of tomorrow.  Find mechanisms to retrain as many of the unemployed as possible into new jobs.  The world has evolved, just like gas stations – technology and the resulting productivity gains have probably eliminated far more jobs than outsourcing, and those jobs are never coming back.  A jobs solution should not be a short term band aid but rather a long term transfusion.   We need to pump up our education system, force innovation and quality, and prepare our children for the world they will live in.  The unemployed are the wounded in the battle of global competitiveness.  We don’t leave them on the field of battle.  We need to support them, give them the transfusion of new skills and talents necessary to work, to compete, and to thrive.

Technology innovation is only speeding up this process of job redefinition.   How many fewer IT people will be needed as companies shift to the cloud?  How many call center employees are needed now that we increasingly use IVR and the web?   When will the post office begin the inevitable job shedding?   How long until busses drive and airplanes fly themselves much as the drones do today?  We need to get ready and begin to create the next generations of jobs.   We only do this by training our children and retraining our country.

By investing in innovation and new ventures, we help create jobs but we also help speed how other jobs get made obsolete.  I worry for those who become unemployed but I would worry more if we stopped supporting innovation.   I also worry that the companies we fund won’t be able to find the people they need.  Today, finding great technical sales people, finding great developers, and finding data driven marketers is becoming harder and harder.  The jobs are there and will be there – the skills are not there today in sufficient numbers.

Sorry New Jersey – I’m buying my gas across your borders, I’m sticking to my ATM, and my EZPass.   Anyone with great education, technology innovations, or training / retraining solutions – send them to me.   I’m going long on our new, technology enabled economy, and have dollars that need to go to work.