Fragile Virtue: Rural Labor Market Response to a New Competitive Environment
Timothy R. Wojan
The shift from cost to non-cost factors of competition is commonly thought to have disadvantaged rural production in the 1980s and 1990s. Differentiated consumer tastes, in combination with demand for higher quality products have rewarded production systems that are both flexible and adaptable. It is argued that labor market characteristics of rural areas, reliant on routine production of standardized products, are ill-suited to fill these requirements. In contrast, urban areas have accommodated this change in the competitive environment by deploying pools of skilled labor that can perform a large variety of nonstandardized tasks and move rapidly from declining to emerging industries or firms. The change can be characterized as a replacement of the "robust regime" of mass production by a "resilient regime" of flexible accumulation.
Production systems described as "fragile" have provided an alternative response to the new competitive environment ( Kochan et al. 1993). They are characterized by a high degree of interdependency between labor and management within firms, and amongst firms in supplier-contractor or co- production relations. The critical distinction from the "resilient regime" described above is that skills are developed internally rather than relying on external markets. This chapter investigates the experience of rural firms in the Upper Midwest that have derived competitive advantages from the application of high-commitment industrial relations/human resource (IR/HR) strategies that characterize "fragile" production systems.