MORE Massachusetts residents are experiencing the heavy weight of empty pockets. Competition for jobs has more than doubled over the past year, and unemployment rates are pushing 8 percent. Frustration is especially high in poor neighborhoods, where residents are demanding that the Patrick administration cut them in for a significant portion of the estimated 79,000 jobs anticipated through the state's $8.7 billion share of federal stimulus funds.
A coalition of 35 groups led by the nonprofit Massachusetts Communities Action Network is asking the Patrick administration to set aside 15 percent of those jobs for low-income, chronically unemployed, and out-of-work youths. Angry speakers at a recent meeting organized by the Union of Minority Neighborhoods also demanded a share of the public works jobs from the $438 million earmarked for road and bridge repair and other projects. The construction industry has been especially hard hit in the economic downturn. And minority workers, who have fought with only limited success to break into the trade unions, are afraid that unionized workers will squeeze them out of the new opportunity.
The concern in low income communities is genuine. But this is no time for the state to be locking itself into inflexible quotas, not when job loss is spreading through all levels of the society. Strict hiring set-asides are too clumsy in an environment requiring rapid deployment of stimulus funds, such as "shovel ready" construction projects.
"It's not neat and simple," explains state Labor Secretary Suzanne Bump. "You can't say, 'Just give me a 15 percent set-aside,' when people are lacking in the skills necessary to do the job." Bump is taking a hard line. But it's the right one, given that the state is also committing $56 million in stimulus funds to train low-income workers and the chronically unemployed.
Still, the administration is showing creativity to ensure that less-experienced workers aren't left behind. On Friday, the governor filed legislation requiring that apprentices be given 20 percent of the hours on public works contracts over $1 million under the stimulus plan.
Bump also says she will be pressing vocational schools and community colleges to provide group trainings in areas with good job prospects, such as weatherization and energy efficiency. Many unskilled workers are under the false assumption that they can just walk off the streets into jobs requiring them to blow insulation into walls or perform energy audits. But securing such jobs will require technical training.
Training opportunities for long-term careers will prove more valuable for low-income workers than short-term set-asides.