What do the jobs of the 21st century look like?

Day 2 of the Virginia Velocity Tour: Richmond

If you look at the headlines in Cambridge, Davos, and Silicon Valley, global thinkers are incredibly worried about the future of jobs in the 21st century. Self-driving cars and other automation will put most people out of work, the consensus suggests. An estimated 35% of the American workforce does not receive a single paycheck from a single employer — up more than 300% from a decade ago.

The rapidly changing workforce can be an advantage for most people — or it can put society in deep trouble.

One of the partners of the Virginia Velocity Tour is the Hitachi Foundation, which is dedicated to defining and affirming what quality jobs look like. Entrepreneurship creates jobs — but what kind of jobs new firms create is a critical question surrounding economic growth. According to the Economic Innovation Group, another Virginia Velocity Tour partner, startup creation has boomed in the 20 wealthiest metro areas over the past 30 years — but elsewhere, more firms are dying than are starting. Tech firms create great jobs for a highly-educated workforce, but most people have been left out of the boom. Entrepreneurs can build economies, but we need to critically ask what kind of jobs these firms are creating — and for who?

On day two of the Virginia Velocity Tour we saw a clear path to what a productive future of work could look like. Richmond has long been a linchpin of the changing workforce — its largest private sector employer, Capital One, was a pioneer in the use of data in business, and startups Wealthforge and Painless1099, who participated in last year’s Rise of the Rest tour, are changing how businesses are financed and how they manage their workforce. On the second day of the Velocity Tour, we saw what the next step could look like.

Virginia Commonwealth University students pitch their ideas

We started the day by focusing on quality jobs. We kicked off with a breakfast with Mayor Dwight Jones and a group of local entrepreneurial leaders, including Kim Mahan, founder of MAXX. Mayor Jones pioneered the only mayoral office in the country focused on community wealth-building — and closing the wealth gap for founders — a critical consideration for any start-up community. Right now, it costs $30,000, the Kauffman Foundation estimates, to start a firm. The average Caucasian family has $100,000 in net worth; African-American and Latino families have, on average, less than $8,000. Lowering barriers to creating quality jobs requires including everyone in the conversation.

Kim Mahan, the founder of MAXX, gave a window into what hiring could look like. MAXX is an apprenticeship program where the apprentices learn and work on medium-to-high skills jobs and are getting paid doing it. Founded in Richmond several years ago, MAXX recognizes that we need to invest upfront in human capital to get true return on investment, rather than asking people to take out significant amounts of student debt.

Throughout the day, we visited companies that illustrated what a future workforce could look like. Nutriati was founded by former Altria team members, and is seeking to replace high-margin tobacco — no longer profitable — with other high-margin crops that farmers can grow. Their chickpea flour is growing rapidly. Ledbury has created an elite creative community around designing and manufacturing quality shirts — and are close to selling 200,000 shirts a year from their storefront in downtown Richmond. And Lumi Juices and Relay Foods are tapping into people’s desire for, and interest in, higher-quality foods.

And when we looked at the startups pitching from across Virginia, we saw that the future of work isn’t robots and people collecting basic income checks. The future of work is creative artists reaching retail uses, like Card Isle, which helps artists design greeting cards for everyday customers. It’s people turning commodity skills into elite crafts, like Richmond-based Glass Smith, an electronics repair company, or Hampton Roads-based PlayYourCourt, which helps people teach the skills they understand. It’s Charlottesville-based Relish, which helps employers evaluate job seekers, not off their resume, but on their potential, leveling the job search playing field for all. And our tour of Ledbury was just the beginning — the winner of the $25,000 prize was Norfolk-based Hamilton Perkins Collection, founded by an African-American entrepreneur who is creating quality manufacturing jobs by taking plastic waste and converting it into high-end canvas bags.

The future of work is mobile, to be sure, and causes serious worries and implications. But in Richmond, we saw a future of work that prioritizes creativity and mastery of a craft, which ultimately can lead to rewarding careers. Nearly all of the founders were under 35, and nearly all of them wanted to stay in the city that their company was founded in. The cultural narrative in Richmond gives us hope that we have everything we need to build the economies in the communities we live in today.