Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Is our workforces learning?

While I'm grateful that GNOCDC is around to share this data with us, I have bristle at the way they choose to present the problem of chronic adult illiteracy in New Orleans.
Today’s adult workers need a broader and stronger set of skills than they have in the past, and they must continually update their skills if they are to adapt to rapidly evolving technologies and industries. Literacy skills—including reading, writing, numeracy, and computer skills—are the foundational skills workers need to respond to this changing environment. And soft skills, including social skills and work habits, are becoming increasingly important as many jobs require direct interactions with consumers or teamwork to solve complex problems.

Two recent studies from the Brookings Institution found that there is a gap between the skills required by jobs (including job openings) in the New Orleans metro and the skills supplied by the metro labor pool. Improvement of K–12 education is essential in addressing this problem, but will take decades to fully take effect. For example, in New Orleans, even if there’s a significant in–migration of young professionals, fully two–thirds of the city’s 2025 labor pool will be adults who are already working–age New Orleanians—well past the reach of K–12 schools.
Literacy and education are essential public concerns because we all have an interest in promoting basic human dignity, let alone a functioning inclusive democracy.  Yet here we are asked to see this problem merely in terms of its value to employers.   These studies and an overwhelming number of the news outlets covering them write from a perspective that reduces humans to potential fodder for employers or investors and nothing more.

Reading this stuff leaves the impression the problem we're faced with isn't that citizens aren't being served by their public institutions, it's that the citizens themselves aren't adequate to the needs of the gentry and thus need to be improved or more likely replaced since that is often cheaper.  A similar rhetoric arises in discussions about affordable housing where "workforce" becomes conveniently interchangeable with "poor people" and their basic needs are expressed in terms of their value to industry.
But (Senator Mary) Landrieu said the need was unmet before the storm when about 6,000 low-income people were on a waiting list for the city's 7,000 public housing units. With rents up 45 percent since the storm, an estimated 12,000 homeless people in the city and low-wage service-industry workers struggling to find housing, Landrieu said the demand is as great as it has ever been.

"One of big pieces of our recovery is low- and moderate-income and workforce housing. It is a struggle for middle-class families to afford rents in the city and in the region," Landrieu said. "It gets down to Sen. Vitter and a few critics objecting to the one-to-one replacement."
Important to note Mary was the "good guy" in this particular case and even she couldn't help but talk about the problem in terms of maintaining a useful "workforce."

Note also Mary's attempt to guarantee "one to one" replacement of affordable housing in New Orleans ultimately failed.  But today we're still reading about what a low quality "workforce" the city is plagued with.  Maybe we should shift our policy aims toward actually helping people rather than running them out of town.


Anon said...

No, it makes the dubious assumption that people want to be employed, have jobs and be able to take care of themselves and their families. In the real world, which apparently doesn't include our public libraries, one needs to have a few basic skills in order to be attractive to potential employers.

Charles said...

Interesting thing about workforce housing is it's actually a real estate term of art. It's a category of housing that isn't really affordable or for poor people but is nevertheless eligible for federal housing funds intended to go to actual affordable housing. It's often used to subsidize medium-high-end condos. I did a story on this when I was in Nashville and was kind of shocked by what qualified. http://nashvillecitypaper.com/content/city-news/councils-affordable-housing-bill-promoting-anything-affordable