It's become good politics in urban areas to advocate `skills training' for immigrant groups, even if the skills are pretty basic.

It's become good politics in urban areas to advocate `skills training' for immigrant groups, even if the skills are pretty basic.
August 2001
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Fifteen years ago, the so-called "Massachusetts miracle" created a high-tech boom that lifted a long-languishing Northeastern state out of the economic doldrums. Now, however, Massachusetts has a different kind of problem: not enough workers. In the past decade, the national labor force expanded by 11 percent. But Massachusetts' supply of labor increased only 1.5 percent--less than one-seventh of the national total.

Dig deeper, though, and you'll find that Massachusetts' real problem isn't a lack of workers. Rather, it's a lack of workers who can do the jobs the economy is creating. Because, like so many other parts of the country, one thing that Massachusetts isn't lacking is fresh blood. In the past decade, the state added more than 300,000 people. That's a 5 percent increase--not a huge number but a healthy one. Virtually the entire net increase in the state's population came from immigration. The Hispanic population rose by half; the Asian population went up 67 percent.

Many of these immigrants, of course, have little education and few skills. So they're stuck in dead-end jobs, while the high end of the economy can't find the workers required for the jobs being created. And they're concentrated in central cities. (According to one recent study, 48 percent of Massachusetts' foreign-born residents live in central cities, compared with 30 percent of native-born residents.) So it's become good politics in urban Massachusetts to advocate "skills training" for immigrant groups, even if the skills are pretty basic.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino recently hosted a "skills summit" for the Northeast, partly to tout a program encouraging literacy and English proficiency that's being funded by developer fees. And the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, a think tank, is pushing adult literacy as the key in the state's economic growth. One in three Massachusetts workers lacks necessary job skills, MassINC reports. That's 1 million people overall, including almost 700,000 who have high school diplomas. The MassINC study throws around terms such as "Adult Basic Education," to distinguish it from the traditional university extension and field-trips-for-seniors orientation of adult education.

Developer fees spent on literacy? Adult education as the key to prosperity? What's going on?

Welcome to the 21st century, where all those sports stadiums, convention centers and high-profile headquarters don't matter nearly so much as the prosaic nuts and bolts of helping people get and keep jobs. The key to the future of the American economy is linking people to skills and skilled workers to jobs. And there's only one growing source of potential skilled labor: the mostly unskilled and poorly educated immigrants from Asia and Latin America who are now living in our nation's central cities. Hence, literacy programs instead of convention centers.

It's refreshing to view immigration as a work-force issue rather than a social services issue, which is how it usually gets cast in the public policy debate. Indeed, in the past year or two, the entire economic development policy debate in the United States has shifted. It now centers on the emerging multi-ethnic work force. And we're not talking just about mid-career retooling for laid-off factory workers. Increasingly, we're seeing a focus on basic literacy training and work-force skills. This trend even moves into the debate on urban and regional planning, where some "work-force development" component is becoming standard. Indeed, the battle over "affordable housing" is no longer, by and large, a clash over where to put poor people. In our largest metro area, it's become a debate about where and how to build houses and apartments for our emerging work force.

And the whole issue of work-force assistance for America's emerging population is only going to become a bigger issue in politics in the future. Antonio Villaraigosa may have lost the recent Los Angeles mayoral election to James Hahn (who had a white-black coalition), but there is little doubt that a Villaraigosa-style campaign appealing to these new populations will succeed at some point in the future. And the politics of work-force assistance will increasingly play well in the older suburbs, too, which are quickly changing to become more multi-ethnic.

Of course, we've been through this before--with the forebears of those Americans who see the economic future in sports stadiums and convention centers. The urban politics of the 19th century encouraged the upward mobility of the European immigrants of that era. Once the upward mobility started, so did the demand for suburban housing and metropolitan amenities of the sort that more recent economic development-types like to promote. So it makes sense that the new urban ethnic coalitions will take on economic development issues in the service of upward mobility. If they succeed, perhaps in 20 years we'll be subsidizing soccer stadiums.