Create More Jobs for the Working Poor

December 13, 2007 - Sioux Falls Argus Leader, by Marty Gallanter

The topic of the moment is work-force development.  Jargon aside, that means “where are we going to get the workers.”  One cannot drive Minnesota Avenue or Forty-First Street without finding at a dozen signs pleading for help.  The credit card companies dominate job fairs while manufacturing turns heavily to the immigrant and refugee communities.  And the developers continue to build more retail space and try to attract more businesses.  How long before tables stand empty in busy restaurants due to lack of servers and cash registers stand silent because there is no one to run them?  This is the challenge and one significant downside of a booming local economy.

I attended a meeting of Forward Sioux Falls II recently where “workforce development” was a hot topic.  FSF2 is not an organization, but a community-wide think tank that discusses, suggests and debates serious societal issues.  FSF2 is not designed to solve problems, but to help identify them and propose multi-faceted solutions.  As the name implies, there was a Forward Sioux Falls one that greatly contributed to the long range planning of our city.  It was so good that folks wanted to do it again and they did.  I have been involved for over three years.

Many issues were covered, but workforce development was the one that got the most attention.  The discussion centered largely on attracting new people to the city, raising Sioux Falls’ profile so young workers would know there were opportunities and promoting the excitement right here in South Dakota.  There was lots of good talk, many good ideas and proposals that were “sexy,” innovative and fun.  But I think something basic was overlooked.

There’s no question that there is and will continue to be a need for highly skilled people to feed the machinery of our rapidly growing research and medical communities.  However, right now, there are hundreds; maybe thousands of jobs open in entry level customer service, in retail and manufacturing.  The CEO of one company told me that without the hard-working immigrant community he would be in trouble.  Even so his turnover rate exceeds 40%.  There are few who would move to Sioux Falls for these jobs.

That discussion directed a thought.  There are hundreds, maybe several thousand, families in greater Sioux Falls who are underemployed.  Many are what the media calls the “working poor.”  These are families with jobs, sometimes two or three jobs, who still can’t make it to the next paycheck.  They come to the Banquet to eat and to Volunteers of America to help get Christmas presents for their children.  They are often single parents, but just as often intact traditional families whose English is weak, whose job skills are not highly developed, or who come from other cultures where the norms of work and business are different.  Most importantly they already live here.  And with the right kind of help; language lessons, job training, work-skills development, counseling and maybe even some new clothes these folks could fill those entry level jobs, better provide for their families and be able to afford Christmas gifts for their children.

The challenge is found in the Federal Government cutbacks in funding for language training (the Even Start program), job training and skill development.  All the money is going into Iraq .  Whether you support the war or not, that’s where the Federal funds are focused and when the Feds cut back on South Dakota , South Dakota cuts back on programs.  Without money from DC or new taxes, - and that’s not going to happen - there are no funds to keep these programs. 

Here’s a radical suggestion.  Maybe the companies who hope to hire these people will be willing to risk some dollars to get them ready to fill jobs.  The United Way saw the value and allocated funds to help new immigrants get ready for the work force.  It might even be cheaper for some of these corporations than the cost of recruitment and retention.  Turnover is expensive.  Empty computer terminals, vacant tables and silent cash registers do not produce income.  Helping the working poor become part of the working middle class is both productive and profitable.

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