Labor Day is usually the official start to political campaigns, and will likely see a major uptick in interest in the Boston mayoral race. It is also a time when we traditionally reflect on jobs issues. With an unemployment rate among the lowest of American cities, and cranes dotting the horizon, the jobs issue has not risen to the top of the mayoral campaign debate, like education and casinos have. Yet the high rate of unemployment masks a serious challenge facing the city, which has ramifications for our future. Thousands of talented Boston residents want to join Boston’s high-wage innovation economy but find themselves on the outside looking in.
Consider the story of Cecile. She arrived in Boston five years ago, an experienced nurse in her native country. Without a US nursing certification, she found work in the food service industry, working far below her skill level at relatively low wages. Recently she completed a nursing assistant course at JVS, and is now re-starting her nursing career on the first rung of the ladder and is hoping to enter college to secure her nursing degree. Or consider Bill, a construction worker who has been out of work for more than two years. He works part time in the food service industry, and recently entered a program to prep for Quincy College’s Biotechnology Manufacturing certificate program.
Cecile and Bill are typical of thousands of Boston residents who possess strong skills, a powerful work ethic, and a deep desire to move from the lower wage service sector to the much higher wage innovation sector. Making this move is more difficult than most of us can imagine, and for many Bostonians, it’s nearly impossible.
In his recent study of the American job market, “The New Geography of Jobs,” economist Enrico Moretti lists a dozen cities that have benefited from the booming innovation economy, where a confluence of educational institutions, entrepreneurs, and skilled labor creates economic vitality. Boston is on that list. Life sciences, health care, financial services, higher education, and technology jobs are all robust. Service sector jobs in these cities, including Boston, also have higher than average wages, but the gap between the two sectors is enormous.
The key determinant of who is on which side of this gap is education. Nearly all of the job growth in the most recent recovery has consisted of jobs requiring some college, and the vast majority of jobs projected to be created over the next decade will require at least some college. Unlike much of the nation, Boston is creating good new jobs. The question is whether our residents are prepared to fill them.
Boston residents whose dreams depend on joining the innovation economy face a long list of barriers to getting there. These include inadequate educational skills, inadequate child care, transportation and housing, few resources to purchase education, and few options for getting those resources. Boston has a small number of training vouchers that are paid for through federal funds and linkage fees on new development. In the past year 200 training vouchers were available; far less than the need.
Economic and jobs issues are often driven by national and regional trends and out of the hands of mayors. But Boston, with its strong economy, and best-in-class employers is well positioned to share its prosperity and offer real opportunity to its residents. Here are six steps the next mayor can take to provide residents with the tools they need to enter the innovation economy.
— Expand resources for the Neighborhood Jobs Trust, which helps pay for job training, by increasing linkage fees on new development by $1.00 per square foot. This would help finance new training vouchers for city residents.
— Use Neighborhood Jobs Trust funding to support college preparation services for young and working adults who need and want to attend college, but are not prepared to succeed.
— Create an endowed public-private fund to support school-to-work career internships for high-school and adult students in key innovation sectors and companies.
— Hold an annual recognition event to celebrate “employers of choice” who consistently invest in education and career opportunities for their entry level employees.
— Make state funding for subsidized child care slots a top priority of the state Legislature.
— Work with the Legislature to increase “welfare-to-work” training resources to help individuals move from public assistance to jobs.
Boston’s reputation for innovation, growth and quality of life is spreading nationally and internationally. With the appropriate attention, and resources, the next mayor of Boston can enhance that reputation by providing opportunity for all of its residents. Boston will then be known as a truly innovative world-class city.
Jerry Rubin is President and CEO of JVS, the largest workforce development agency in New England.