The Language of Business

If you can read and comprehend this sentence … you’re fortunate.

A recently released report, authored by MassINC (the Mass. Institute for A New Commonwealth) indicates that growing numbers of people in the state’s workforce — or who would like to be part of that workforce — cannot read it, and this simple fact may have dire consequences for the state.

The report, titled The Changing Face of Massachusetts, reveals that the state’s immigrant population is rising, and a significant proportion of these new arrivals has difficulty with the English language. These are troubling findings, because there has been significant out-migration from the Bay State in recent years — for reasons ranging from its cost of living to its liberal lifestyles — and the Commonwealth is relying heavily on immigrants to meet the needs of an economy that, when we last checked, was still expanding and adding jobs.

If large numbers of these immigrants are unable to gain a quick, reasonable grasp of the English language, that economy could sputter.

Bill Ward, director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, knows this. That’s why he views the report as both a wake-up call and, hopefully, a catalyst for action on a statewide level to direct more resources to the task of improving proficiency in English across the board.

We share that view, and urge elected officials and economic development leaders to take the initiative on this issue.

The numbers within the MassINC report tell an intriguing story. For starters, the foreign-born share of the state’s workforce nearly doubled between 1980 and 2004, from 8.8% to 17%. Since 2001, the state’s labor force is estimated to have grown by less than 1%, and would have actually shrunk if it were not for the new immigrant populations.

What those numbers say is that the state is becoming increasingly reliant on immigrants for its continued economic health and well-being. And the report hints strongly that the state should be aggressive in helping to train and educate these people — especially in the matter of the English language.

Indeed, the report’s authors refer to proficiency in English — or lack thereof — as the new fault line separating those who succeed in the so-called New Economy from those who don’t.

But while the report’s findings are eye-opening, they are also somewhat misleading, at least when it comes to the communities of Western Mass., specifically Springfield and Holyoke.

Those two cities are not listed anywhere near the top of list of state cities and towns with high immigrant populations. These communites do, however, have large populations of Puerto Ricans who, because they are citizens of the United States, are not considered immigrants. But many of them do have problems reading, writing, and speaking English.

And Ward knows that this fact is contributing to a disconnect in the local job market — specifically a situation where people are looking for work and can’t find it, and some companies need qualified people and can’t find them.

Improved proficiency in English could help remedy this situation, but waiting lists for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are currently longer than the lists of those currently enrolled.

What’s needed, according to The Changing Face authors, is a public-private partnership that will educate residents, the business community, and the Legislature on the pressing need to make proficiency in English a top priority. We support those efforts, and hope that if and when such a partnership gets down to business — literally and figuratively, it does leave Western Mass. behind.

Lawrence, Lowell, Chelsea, and other Eastern Mass. communities have much higher populations of recent immigrants, but Springfield, Holyoke, and other Pioneer Valley communities share the same overriding problem: English.

As the MassINC report indicates, the face of the state’s workforce is changing. The Commonwealth and its business community must acknowledge this fact and adjust accordingly.