Opinion

Opinion | Paul S. Grogan

A tight labor market is a terrible thing to waste

Career Planning Concept. Businessman Facing Problems On Career Planning

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The question of who gets to share in our city’s prosperity is the pressing question of our time. While Boston is enjoying a remarkable resurgence from the Great Recession, it is clear that this prosperity has not been widely shared. By one estimate, we have the highest rate of income inequality in America.

In the face of this challenge, we must make smart investments in programs that connect our residents to the labor force. This is not just a social justice issue, it’s also an economic imperative.

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At 3.5 percent, our unemployment rate is among the lowest of any large metro region in the nation. A daunting backlog of vacancies vexes employers, and these trends will only intensify. Bay State companies face a wave of retirements in the future as our workforce is aging faster than those in other parts of the country.

The importance of connecting our residents to the abundant, family-sustaining jobs in Greater Boston is often discussed as a workforce pipeline. To take this infrastructure metaphor a step further, what we really need is a workforce highway, with multiple on-ramps and off-ramps that offer a route to the middle class and beyond for people of various ages, levels of educational attainment, and talent.

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One of the most important ramps on this highway is a four-year college degree. By one estimate, Massachusetts leads the nation in the creation of jobs that require these credentials. So by default, college completion has to be a cornerstone of any workforce development strategy for Greater Boston.

We take this very seriously at The Boston Foundation. Since 2008, our largest investment in education has been Success Boston, a program that pairs Boston Public School graduates with a coach as they begin college. These efforts have yielded impressive results. The most recent data show 51 percent of BPS graduates completing college, up from 39 percent in 2008 and closing in on the national average. College completion initiatives are key to upward mobility and deserve more investment and expansion.

However, a bachelor’s degree cannot be a one size fits all solution. There is a growing focus, promoted by J.P. Morgan and others, on jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a 4-year degree.

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Initiatives like Jewish Vocational Services’ “Bridge to College and Career” program prepare students to enter high-paying STEM careers through college preparation partnerships with public two-year colleges, such as Bunker Hill Community College and Quincy College.

While these higher education partnerships offer great promise, it is important to remember that about a third of the job openings in the Commonwealth between 2014 and 2024 are in occupations that require no more than a high school degree. While the wages in many of these jobs tend to be low, there are a few key industries in this group that offer a catalyst for economic empowerment.

Consider our region’s burgeoning hospitality industry, which boasts a development pipeline of 40 new hotels. One nonprofit doing exemplary work in the space is BEST Hospitality Training, which runs a training program in partnership with Boston area hotels and the Unite Here Local 26 labor union for hotel and restaurant workers. Graduates of their program are placed in hotel jobs, most of which offer nearly $20 per hour, plus a comprehensive and affordable benefit package.

Whether it’s a mom who can take her kids to the doctor now that she has a job with health insurance, or a first-generation college student who’s defied the odds and reaches for a cap and gown, the social impact from these programs is powerful and real.

From our point of view, these are among the smartest investments that philanthropy can make anywhere, but they are especially impactful in a city like Boston. When you serve a region with an economy like ours, an investment that yields a new college graduate or a worker with industry-relevant competencies quickly results in a new participant in the labor force. At least it does when unemployment is at 3.5 percent. A labor market this tight would be a terrible thing to waste, which is why we must support and expand proven education and workforce training programs now. Let’s not let this opportunity slip by.

Paul S. Grogan is president of The Boston Foundation.
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