An industrial profile recently developed by the D.C. Department of Employment Services warrants serious consideration in light of a plan by the General Services Administration to consolidate federal offices in the suburbs.
A reading of the profile suggests that the plan probably would accelerate a 30-year decline in federal employment in the District, further eroding the city's economy. It suggests further that the decline has been as responsible for problems in the local economy as the migration of private businesses to the suburbs.
Unquestionably, the GSA plan to move federal offices to suburban locations poses a further threat to the District's economy. Besides causing the District to lose federal jobs, it could lead to relocations within the private sector.
Although the plan has some merit as a cost-cutting measure, GSA seems less interested in the negative impact it's likely to have on the District than it is in other considerations. Moving federal workers closer to their homes -- a dubious accomplishment at best -- would make commutes shorter, put employment centers closer to affordable housing and give working mothers better access to children in suburban schools and day-care centers, according to GSA officials.
That assumes, for example, that if GSA consolidates the offices of an agency in Silver Spring, the commute will be easier for federal employes who live in Springfield. It also assumes that no federal workers in the District will be affected by moves to suburban locations and that those workers have no need for schools and day-care facilities close to their homes.
GSA took the first step earlier this month in making good on its promise to "provide safe, high-quality office space in less-expensive suburban locations." After purchasing an 18-story office building in Rockville and signing an agreement to lease another in the same area, GSA announced it is working on plans to buy or lease other large blocks of space in the suburbs.
That has serious implications, not just for the office market in the District, but for the city's economy in general. A significant part of the growth of Washington's suburbs and an erosion of the District's economy in the past 20 years can be traced to federal employment policies.
Federal employment in the District peaked in 1967. Since then, more than 29,000 federal jobs have "disappeared" from the District's job base, according to the DCDES.
One need not be a labor market analyst to figure out where those jobs went. They followed the same route that so many businesses have used to migrate from the District since 1968. Indeed, the DCDES reports that the most rapid suburban job growth occurred between 1967 and 1970, when the District experienced its biggest loss of federal jobs. The suburbs gained 49,000 jobs during that three-year period, 11,000 more than the District lost.
The disparity shown in that three-year period is only a small part of a profile that deserves serious study by D.C. officials as they wrestle with the problem of business retention. In the last five years alone, the District has lost an estimated 30,800 jobs, according to the DCDES. Federal suburban jobs have increased by 8,400 in the same period.
Metropolitan Washington gained 128,000 federal civilian jobs between 1956 and 1985. Ninety-four percent of those jobs have been in Washington's suburbs. Before 1956, at least 88 percent of all federal jobs were in the District. By 1985, the District's share had fallen to 59 percent.
Over the 29-year period that ended in 1985, the federal government added 4,400 jobs annually to the suburban work force but increased the District's share by only 260 annually.
The findings prompted the DCDES to conclude: "For all useful purposes, federal jobs in the District have been at a standstill for nearly three decades."
More recently, federal government employment in the District decreased by 1,000 in February. During the 12-month period that ended in February, the federal government added only 100 jobs in the District while adding 500 in the suburbs.
The outlook for federal employment is also "very bleak," according to the DCDES. Economists in the department project that federal employment in the Washington area will increase one-tenth of 1 percent between 1980 and 1990.
Those projections do not reflect the net effect that the GSA plan could have on the area, however.
Five years ago, D.C. government officials commissioned a study of problems associated with business retention. A review of the DCDES' analysis of the trend in federal employment in the District and GSA's suburban strategy suggest there is a critical need for a revised study. This time, the focus needs to be on retention of federal jobs.