At Coworking Spaces, Plenty of Coffee (Without Any Cubicles)

April 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

You’re right to be skeptical about co-working spaces. Let’s face it, you might be more concerned about finding “work,” period. But last week I had the opportunity to sit down with two pretty incredible people, Graham Veysey and Emmett McDermott, and talk about their newest venture, Cowork Cleveland. There, I got a glimpse of the future of work.

I joined Veysey and McDermott on a walk-through of the historic Ohio City Firehouse, had a chance to see some of the amenities, work spaces, and the forthcoming coffee shop, Rising Star Coffee Roaster, which will feature coffee roasters designed and developed by some guy who worked at Lockheed Martin (the coffee snobs will love it, I am told).

Co-working spaces are not particularly a Cleveland thing, nor are they a Midwestern thing. These spaces are still a relatively new way of doing work and conducting business. The term “co-working” is itself still a very new idea, but it’s taking off. Some, like Grind in Manhattan, are so edgy there’s a waiting list to get in. Yet you can find them mostly anywhere as more and more they spread across the country.

What co-working spaces do is provide a service that traditional employers cannot–namely, a break from the mundane, coerced sort of “work,” with the chance to collaborate in an interdisciplinary-based environment. At Cowork Cleveland there are programmers, designers, lawyers and freelancers of all sorts. They are using the space on daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly intervals. The space has an energy about it that makes you want to collaborate, and if you stay there long enough you undoubtedly will.

The purpose of this post is not to gloat about what might be my new favorite spot in Cleveland, but rather to discuss how co-working spaces, like Cowork Cleveland, fit into a model that is in line with MSCS’s vision of a truly sustainable city. Furthermore, I want to make the case, as always, that it is de-industrialized cities like Cleveland that already offer infrastructure for the types of creative spaces that co-working requires.

Physical infrastructure aside, we all can attest to the ever-changing job market that some argue increasingly resembles seasonal work rather than the fanciful notion of a “corporate ladder” waiting for us to climb. With 1 in 2 recent graduates out of meaningful work, the trend suggests those mid-level jobs are nearly extinct, with no signs of coming back. As the Associated Press reports,

Any job gains are going mostly to workers at the top and bottom of the wage scale, at the expense of middle-income jobs commonly held by bachelor’s degree holders. By some studies, up to 95 percent of positions lost during the economic recovery occurred in middle-income occupations such as bank tellers, the type of job not expected to return in a more high-tech age.

Joblessness and unemployment among recent college graduates, defined as those under the age of 25, hovers around 53.6%. Moreover, occupational tenure (the average time somebody holds a job) now hovers around 4.1 years per job, so a 25-year old can, at best, expect to work 7 to 10 jobs before retiring from their illustrious career as a… whatever.

The picture is bleak, and no one is trying to sugarcoat it, especially if you overlay these sobering statistics with the insurmountable load of college loan debt, which has now outpaced credit card debt, with each recent graduate owing $25,000 on average. Due to the rising cost of a college education, which has risen by 439% since 1982, few traditional job prospects provide a route out of debt anytime soon, particularly because the value of a college degree is shrinking just as the cost of one is sky-rocketing. What ought our recent college graduates do? Where should they turn?

It is my humble suggestion that co-working spaces might be part of the solution.

Globalization has and will continue to change the whole notion of what it is to have a job, much less a career. Co-working spaces provide a way to get closer to a point where creating a job for yourself becomes a much more realistic prospect. They create a situation in which collaboration and ingenuity can produce businesses and services that only 20-somethings can think of; we are more adept at social media, technology, and have a greater understanding of our now global community–both its assets and its problems–than any generation in history. When viewing co-working spaces in this light, job prospects seem much more promising than blindly submitting applications to work at… wherever.

There’s the argument that we, the college-educated workforce, are somehow unintelligent, lazy, unmotivated, freeloaders who just expect things (read “jobs”) to fall into our laps. But my contention with this reasoning is that the road map to employment of any kind has changed dramatically. Worse yet, those who deploy this demeaning rhetoric are the beneficiaries, not the victims, of this new job market. They created it! They have had steady jobs during the dot-com and real estate bubbles, they aren’t over burdened (to the same degree) by the amounts of debts that we carry, and it is their companies who have written the laws that have systematically been outsourcing entry-level jobs to the developing world for labor that comes at a fraction of the cost. We cannot compete, nor should we, with salaries earned by those in the developing countries around the globe. our debts are too great and such a compromise would only validate the practice of outsourcing entry-level jobs. This all takes place while companies are posting huge profit margins even as they bemoan an “undereducated workforce” in the United States, which is another way of saying, “We would hire you, if you could just work for a fraction of the cost!”

If these traditional avenues of employment are vanishing with no signs of return, the allure to being an entrepreneur has never seemed stronger. Now the question becomes, where should I begin my career–yes, career–as an entrepreneur?

Why, the deindustrialized Midwest, of course! Not only do all the a priori notions of those cities make living there more compelling (inexpensive rent, low cost of living, rich culture and friendly people) but now the feasibility of starting a business and knowing the resources will be there makes the prospect seem more like a dream-come-true than a mere compromise.

It seems to me that the argument that “there aren’t any jobs in that city” is a cop out, plain and simple. Sure, there are some industries, such as education or skilled manufacturing, where employment is largely location based, but growing economic trends point to a service-based job market rather than a resurgence of manufacturing/export-based industry. If that’s where the tide is taking us, why fight it?

We need to wrap our minds around the idea that the traditional career path that our parents once may have enjoyed is not a luxury we ought not expect. Assuming such stability in an ever-changing job market would be foolish.

Make your own job, be your own boss, think collaboratively, and maybe, if we create an environment of cross-pollination, solutions to our current economic woes can be addressed in a meaningful and substantive way. The beauty of co-working spaces is that there can never be an overabundance of them: they are like glorified coffee shops that produce jobs (rather than another captive audience for some Jason Mraz music). Co-working spaces can exist within blocks of one another, and, if anything, will only bring about better results rather than self-defeating competition. Forcing creative, like-minded people to work in a shared physical space is a winning combination for all parties involved.

Additionally, these co-working spaces allow for the reuse and redevelopment of properties that would otherwise remain idle or vacant. Co-working spaces create a new type of economy, one that more closely resembles an open-sourced knowledge bank rather than an information silo. Furthermore, and most importantly, the co-working economy is one based on collaboration rather than self-interested competition. On a purely psychological level, co-working spaces are healthier, more productive, and more in line with a healthy society than traditional work spaces.

Co-working is an exciting prospect for any city or neighborhood. If a globalized workforce like ours can embrace these changes, it will benefit those individuals who have sought to start their own businesses, to be their own bosses, and to pave their own paths. Co-working is not a panacea for 53% unemployment among 20-somethings, but it is, without a doubt, an invaluable tool in changing the employment landscape to more accurately reflect our values, needs, and desires. And who knows? Maybe we can eat away at some of those student loans while we’re at it.

Daniel Brown, Co-founder

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