Northeastern University closed its Center for Labor Market Studies this week, quietly shuttering an influential research center that gained a national reputation for its work on unemployment, income disparities, and other economic issues, and laying off a handful of remaining staff.
School officials did not announce the closure, or last summer’s retirement of the center’s founder and director, economics professor Andrew Sum. A widely respected specialist in labor market research, Sum launched the center in 1979 with a three-year grant from the US Department of Labor.
Over the course of three decades, the center and its team of researchers identified key labor and economic trends, sometimes years before they hit the public’s radar, and influenced government policies on worker training, education, and literacy. Sum’s research on youth unemployment, which described a problem as a “Great Depression” for the nation’s youth, helped advocacy groups win additional city and state funding for youth employment programs in Massachusetts.
The center sounded the alarm about rising economic inequality decades ago and more recently, warned that the aging workforce will lead to labor shortages and slower economic growth, even as youth unemployment — even among college grads — deprives a new generation of experience and skills the US economy will need to advance.
Paul Harrington, who was codirector of the center from 1980 to 2010, said Sum was the heart and soul of the operation. He viewed the rise of youth unemployment as a “national catastrophe,” Harrington said, and his work on literacy and unemployment from a decade ago remains “groundbreaking.”
Sum “cracked the code” in his book “Literacy in the Labor Market,” Harrington said, linking reading, writing, and arithmetic proficiency with job success.
“It’s kind of sad to see it end, it was such an integral part of Northeastern,” said Harrington, now an economics professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he directs a similar center studying labor market issues. “Andy Sum is irreplaceable, he’s one of a kind.”
While outspoken and passionate, Sum, 69, can also be intensely private, Harrington said. Sum did not respond to interview requests.
After the federal grant money ran out, the center became largely self-financed, generating revenues by doing research and analysis for government agencies, quasi-government agencies, and nonprofits. As the center’s reputation spread, the work rolled in.
Officials at Northeastern said the center closed because it had no endowment to support its work and Sum did not groom a successor.
Sheila Palma, his assistant for 34 years, said her last day at the office was Tuesday, but Sum was not there for the final good-bye. “It was too emotional for him,” she said.
For the last week, university workers have packed up the offices, filling crates with volumes of papers that will be archived. Palma said she cried when she thought about all the years and all the hard work.
“I have fond memories,” said Palma, 55, who is now looking for work. “It’s the end of an era.”
Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern, said the Dukakis center is undertaking additional labor market research following Sum’s retirement.
He said the Dukakis center recently hired Alicia Sasser Modestino, a former senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, as an associate professor and senior researcher.
Michael Goodman, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, served with Sum on the editorial board of MassBenchmarks, an economics journal published by UMass. He called the closing of the Center for Labor Market Research at Northeastern “a big loss” for the academic research community as well as everyday working people.
Goodman described Sum as a perceptive, forward-thinking scholar who never stopped calling attention to the laid-off factory workers, low-wage service employees, poor families, and others left behind in the modern economy.
“Especially in the wake of the Great Recession, the work that he and his colleagues at the center did was deeply insightful and very much helped to frame the discussion about the jobs crisis we have experienced in the United States,” Goodman said. “That’s going to be missed.”