When Mayor Ray Nagin released the city's first "State of the Workforce" report on Labor Day, the study provided figures and statistics confirming what many of us had long suspected: the labor market in the New Orleans area is in critical shape.
We learned that people in New Orleans' labor pool are largely unprepared to handle job-seeking or work environments that require the most basic math, literacy and communications skills. Most shocking was just how many potential workers lack these skills. Citing Greater New Orleans Literary Alliance figures, the study says 33 to 44 percent of the local population aged 16 and over function at the lowest level of literacy measurable. "A high school diploma or equivalent does not necessarily indicate acquisition of basic skills," the report reads.
The report said 51 percent of the local population could be employed, but aren't -- a figure that excludes stay-at-home parents, retirees, the severely disabled and the incarcerated. Many are skeptical of this figure, because the official unemployment rate in New Orleans is 7.4 percent. Andrala Walker, director of Job 1 (the retooled version of the mayor's Office of Workforce Development), says the numbers aren't inflated. The 7.4 percent figure, she points out, "is only the number of people who go into an unemployment office and apply for unemployment benefits. There are literally thousands of people across the country who never do that."
Walker puts the local "unemployed but employable" population at around 69,000. "Even if we were overstating it a little bit," she says, "if that number were 40 percent or 30 percent, that's still a significant amount of people who are not employed who could possibly be."
The study indicates that small businesses hire almost half the city's employees, create two-thirds of new jobs, and are a major force in hiring youths, the less educated, and welfare recipients. "The data show that the small-business economy is a viable economic engine to the tune of $7 billion," Walker says. Unfortunately, such businesses currently face roadblocks from the city instead of support. A laudable goal of Job 1 is to provide greater help to these businesses.
Now, the difficult part: getting to the root of the problems. Job 1's initiatives include training people in basic workplace skills, expanding programs that match workers with jobs, promoting entrepreneurship, identifying the needs of small businesses, and recruiting companies to provide quality jobs for college graduates. Job 1 also plans to develop opportunities for "under-employed" populations such as teens, disabled people and non-violent ex-cons.
It's an ambitious strategy, and Job 1 cannot possibly tackle New Orleans' formidable employment issues alone. Some of the issues that must be addressed before the local labor market can experience improvement include: major progress in the public schools; better support for local businesses, particularly in City Hall; good, affordable child care (women make up more than half the local workforce); and safe, reliable, efficient public transportation.
This is not just Job 1's challenge. "We have to embrace the labor force as a community," Walker says. "Nonprofit organizations, faith-based institutions, businesses, the school system -- we all have to come together to work on this issue." Job 1 has already initiated partnerships with New Orleans Public Schools, the Literary Alliance of Greater New Orleans and other agencies, she says.
Walker also notes that Nagin recently released a "Citizens' Guide to City Hall" as part of his plan to make City Hall more accessible. "Mayor Nagin is intently interested in making government work for everyone," she says, "making the procurement process and opportunities transparent and open, so small-business owners and people in general can navigate the City Hall maze."
Clearly, an improved labor market would benefit everyone in the metro area. To that end, it's up to everyone to figure out how best to contribute to the solution. One way is to take advantage of Job 1's workplace training which, Walker points out, can help people on all economic levels who want to upgrade their job skills. Another is by attending community forums, which Job 1 will begin hosting citywide in the next few weeks to gather feedback and advise people how they can take action.
Owners of small businesses should consider participating in Job 1's small-business consortia to make their needs known. Volunteers are also needed to teach computer, math, reading, communications and life skills. It is crucial that major agencies such as the school system and the Regional Transit Authority step up -- but volunteers and other smaller contributors also play a major role.
For now, we applaud the Job 1 proposals and await further developments from that agency and others. The easy part -- identifying the problems -- is over. "We didn't want to just come out with this report and say 'Look how bad we are,'" Walker says, "but to say 'Look, we have some challenges. But the hopeful part of it is, we're working to address it.'"
We'll be watching.