By Benton Murphy, Senior Director of Community Investment at The Community Foundation
As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Greater Washington Workforce Development Collaborative, I am reminded of how The Collaborative was established at a time when our region was gripped by the Great Recession, with unemployment spiking to more than 7 percent and many of our neighbors unable to meet basic needs for food, shelter and healthcare. The Greater Washington Community Foundation helped mobilize and direct the local philanthropic response with major investments in homelessness, hunger, and education. The Collaborative was an opportunity to bring local philanthropists and businesses together to support both immediate and long-term solutions by investing in job training in fields from green construction to healthcare to help more of our neighbors get good, living wage jobs.
Ten years later, unemployment in our region is down (currently at 3.5 percent) and conditions have improved for many of our neighbors. Yet economic insecurity still remains a major challenge for many residents, especially people of color, and the Workforce Collaborative’s work is even more relevant today than when it was founded. Our recent VoicesDMV community engagement initiative surveyed more than 3,000 local residents on their experience in their communities and their overall quality of life. When asked what would happen if they lost their current sources of income, one in three people said they would not have enough money to continue to live as they do today for more than two months. This share rose to nearly half of people without a bachelor’s degree and more than half of people with household incomes below $50,000.
Our low unemployment rate masks deep issues of income inequality in our region. Black workers make just 47 percent of what whites make in Washington, DC alone, according to Census data. Since the Great Recession our local job market has become even more competitive, with a greater and greater share of job openings requiring some form of post-secondary education. Many jobs that once were the mainstay of the middle class—from bank tellers to librarians to cashiers at your local grocery store—are disappearing due to automation.
The impact on our workforce is clear—today average firms employ fewer workers and offer fewer opportunities for workers with no postsecondary education or training. The result is a widening gap between rich and poor that is keeping many un- or under-employed stagnating in low-wage work or struggling to meet the demands of multiple part-time positions. Yet access to job training programs is a challenge for many in our region, with nearly a third of Prince George’s County and Montgomery County residents rating access to education and training as a “major” barrier to finding a job, according to VoicesDMV.
It is with this reality in mind that The Community Foundation has refreshed our workforce development strategy to orient toward the Future of Work. We will continue our work to eliminate income gaps, especially those based on race or ethnicity, but with a specific focus on connecting workers to quality job opportunities in the occupations of tomorrow to help them enter and advance in their careers, build skills, and increase wages. We will also make investments in small businesses and local entrepreneurs that make up an increasing share of our local economy.
Enter into this new economic reality the potential for Amazon HQ2, with an estimated 50,000 new high-paying jobs. HQ2 presents a tremendous opportunity to spur our region’s growth, but what will it do to our relative prosperity? A recent op-ed by our CEO Bruce McNamer and Sarah Rosen Wartell from Urban Institute pointed out how racial and economic inequities that have long plagued our region could prevent many residents from having equal access to these new jobs, modern housing and other amenities that growth brings.
I interviewed some of our region’s workforce development system and policy leaders to hear their thoughts. Will these new jobs be offered to local residents rather than importing workers from across the country to fill these high-skill, high-wage jobs? Local leaders are hopeful that at least 50 percent of Amazon’s new workforce will be local, and yet they are also concerned that many in our region do not have the skills or experience to compete effectively against imported workers from other regions. Amazon’s recent partnership with Northern Virginia Community College— to provide a specialized Cloud Computing credential for its Amazon Web Services operation in Northern Virginia— has made local leaders hopeful that Amazon will think locally to meet its talent pipeline needs and provide opportunities for local residents to land fulfilling careers at Amazon.
As we consider the Future of Work in our region, we will look to continue to find ways to help employers—like Amazon—get connected to the right workers with the right skills. We will also work to examine closely how our region can offset the negative consequences that economic development on the scale that HQ2 can bring. From massive pressures to our transportation infrastructure, local schools, and, perhaps most worryingly, an increase in the upward pressure on housing prices and exacerbate our region’s existing housing affordability crisis, Amazon’s presence is a double-edged sword. The Community Foundation, through the Collaborative and our other Future of Work investments—can be a place where philanthropy can support efforts to ensure that all our region’s residents can benefit from the prosperity that Amazon may bring to the region.
If you’re interested in learning more about our focus on the future of work, I encourage you to take advantage of the following resources: