A Middle Class Pathway for Bay Area Workers

I recently attended a lunchtime forum covering research findings regarding occupation and job opportunities for low and moderate income workers in the Bay Area. The event was hosted in San Francisco by SPUR, an urban planning and good government organization of which I’m a member. My colleagues and I previously had the privilege of collaborating with lecturers Jon Haveman and Steve Levy on our report for the East Bay EDA entitled “Building on Our Assets: Economic Development & Job Creation in the East Bay,” so I was curious to learn more about their current work for the Bay Area’s Economic Prosperity Strategy (funded by a HUD Sustainable Communities grant).

The lecture focused on pathways and opportunities for the Bay Area’s low and moderate income (“LMI”) workers to access better-compensated jobs. As presented, over 35 percent of the Bay Area’s workers qualify as LMI by earning wages of less than $18 per hour. These workers primarily differ from others by their relatively low education levels (46% hold a high school degree or less) and concentration in the age group 35 and under. They work and live throughout the Bay Area since their jobs are typically on-site service jobs within all industry sectors of the economy, which leads to a surprising result: their commutes are slightly shorter than the average worker, and are more likely to occur via bus or on foot rather than by rail or automobile.

So what are these workers’ opportunities for advancement? First of all, Jon was careful to point out that this is an analysis of workers rather than households; these workers are not necessarily living in lifelong poverty since the study does not examine household income, and the data shows many will “graduate” to higher incomes over time. That said, the study’s linkage of occupations and industry growth projections provides an opportunity to identify pathways to accelerate and widen this advancement.

Jon and Steve’s analysis has found that occupations in various office positions, sales, and construction tend to have the highest concentration of jobs in the $18 to $30 per hour salary range. These occupations require strong interpersonal skills, yet otherwise often only require on-the-job training (unfortunately, “soft skills” can be hardest to teach). All-in-all, the analysis has identified approximately 155 occupations paying $18 to $30, of which about 46% have zero “hard-to-train” skill requirements. Other middle-income occupations can still provide opportunities for advancement, but require a greater investment of education and training resources for success.

I’m excited to read the final reports that emerge from this project; I think the findings and recommendations will be useful for lots of my Bay Area projects, particularly those in economically distressed communities. Jon and Steve are taking their findings on the road now, presenting at community and stakeholder meetings throughout the Bay Area. In the meantime, check out Egon Terplan and Tony Vi’s blog post about the first phase of work.

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