The great improvements in national labor markets over the last several years have brought limited reassurances to many that the worst days are behind us economically and that gradually we have recovered from the crisis of 2008-09. While the statistics are favorable, the Southern California economy has lagged in generating jobs, especially in manufacturing, compared with the Bay Area and other parts of the nation that have experienced more robust growth.
The lack of job growth, combined with a persistent problem of nagging, pervasive income inequality has led many to believe that the city is becoming a land of haves and have-nots. With these challenges ahead of us, how can Los Angeles improve this situation in hopes of raising opportunities and living standards for those who have been left behind in this economic recovery?
In Los Angeles, where the largest private employer in town is not a corporation, but rather a respected university, we know that we have a great deal of work to do to improve employment prospects and to create an environment where firms and institutions seek to be situated in this area.
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson’s jobs task force has been a credible step, combined with other initiatives, to raise awareness of the challenges we face in the labor markets. While we must create a favorable environment to bring companies to Southern California, however, we also need to focus on a serious issue that prevails in our national employment picture: the development of a skilled and competitive labor force, which in turn supports a robust middle class.
The strides made in the city to raise the minimum wage, grow its mass-transit capabilities, and to implement the large-scale development of downtown are all to be applauded, but much more needs to be done to improve opportunities for workers to grow the middle class in Los Angeles over the long term.
Further, the economic revival of our Hollywood studios and the success of Silicon Beach sectors of our economy, which are tremendous accomplishments, are not enough to move us to where we need to be from a job market and economic perspective.
The rise of globalization and the transition of the United States to a service- and information-oriented economy has made the labor market much more challenging for those lacking a baccalaureate or vocational degree. Educators, policy-makers, chief executives, collective-bargaining groups, high school and college administrators/faculty, and business leaders need to come together to enhance opportunities for citizens to obtain strong skill sets, whether they attend a four-year college or complete a vocational degree at a local community college.
Raising the social capital of our youth by teaching them about the importance of higher education, the benefits it provides, and the opportunities it affords goes a long way to raising the awareness of such issues in all of our communities.
With these challenges and opportunities in the backdrop, what steps can be taken to improve our labor force and raise the living standards of our middle class in Los Angeles?
We must reinforce the value of vocational education and encourage, at an early stage, all students to ponder directions for attainment of either baccalaureate or vocational degrees, depending on their interest and achievements. High schools and community colleges should continue to work closely together with labor and industry groups to develop job tracks that bring about highly skilled employees in various areas. Students should learn about job tracks in fields such as plumbing, nursing, computerized machinery, roofing, carpentry, auto mechanics, electricians, HVAC maintenance, and other trades that offer a high wage to workers with low probability of outsourcing abroad.
Training curricula need not only focus on skills but also reasoning, quantitative thinking, and automation as part of these vocational programs.
Our civic leaders should continue to support infrastructure growth as a complement to these corporate relationships that foster greater skills. While some of these career areas might lack the glamour and prestige of other fields, they afford stability, high pay, and great opportunities for growth as many workers today near retirement age. Nothing can stop globalization’s march. Los Angeles, as every other major city in America, needs a permanent, standing commitment and approach to ensuring that its labor force is competitive, not just regionally, but globally. Education is a valuable tool that can help policy-makers and business leaders alike achieve this reality.
Christian B. Teeter, Ed.D., serves as Assistant Professor of Business and Director of the M.B.A. program at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles.
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