Can the DC region still attract the best workers?

The D.C. region depends on university and private research to guide its economic development. One of the most consistent voices in this region’s economic studies and meta-studies is Terry Clower, director for the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. On the agenda are two specific topics: the first is a recent study that Clower and his team have done on the immigrant workforce, and second, how we can change the discussion of economic development in our region to make it more holistic.

ABERMAN: Well, let’s start first with your immigrants survey. You and the team just looked at our immigrant workforce, and you have some really important findings for us.

CLOWER: I think it’s really important to understand: so, Spencer Shanholtz, our research associate, and Mark White, out deputy director, did the work of pulling together some of census data, digging deep into what we call all the micro-sample data, to look at the jobs that our immigrant workforce in this region has. We know they’re important, we see them every day, we see the construction crews. We see the people who are doing our lawns, cleaning offices, and many other things, but I’m not sure that we fully recognize just how important, and how big a part of our labor force these immigrant workers are.

ABERMAN: Give me an example of where they’re really important.

CLOWER: So let’s think for example, in construction. Now, you might not be totally surprised, but over half of the construction workers in this region are non-native. Then, you think about in terms of services, that we have almost half of the folks that are doing things like lawn care and those kind of services are non-native. But even in some of our high-tech fields, so computer and mathematical occupations, ten percent of our workforce in this area are actually non-native, non-citizen workers.

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ABERMAN: What we’re getting at here, in your study, your data doesn’t delineate between people that are here with legal status or illegal status, per se.

CLOWER: That’s correct.

ABERMAN: But, by the same token, it would seem to me, because of the nature of the data, my guess is most of these people that are being reported are probably legally employed, because they’re willing to be on a payroll, reported, so on and so forth. For the moment of discussion, fifty percent of our construction workers are people who have been in this country less than ten years, less than five, not a long time. They’re immigrants, they’re people coming here. In a time where unemployment rates are at historical lows, labor market’s really tight, inflation’s going up, is it just incredibly short-sighted to be beating on immigrants, at a time when they’re a valuable part of our workforce?

CLOWER: What it says is, certainly we believe in rule of law, and that you should have that, but a rational policy of immigration would have guest worker programs, workforce programs, and, for people that have been here for a while, pathways that might eventually involve citizenship. It’s not opening the borders and just having a free-for-all. I don’t believe in that, but understand though, that in our particular region, many of these people have been here for a long time. So, if we go back and look at the data, well over half of these people have been there more than ten years. The greatest hunk of them actually came in the 2000-2010 period. So, we’re only talking about roughly five of the immigrant workforce have been here for less than three years.

ABERMAN: So, as we look at this issue here in the region, it sounds to me that it’s fair to say that the dopamine hit we might get from engaging this issue from an emotional standpoint, the data suggests that it’s going to have a profound effect upon our local economy, and how it plays out.

CLOWER: Sure. Let’s tie it into something: we can’t talk about economic development without talking about Amazon or Apple, you know, big locations coming in. But the way you get economic impacts, it’s not just their jobs, it’s all those other jobs that are created in the economy. Unfortunately, we’re in the situation, though, you start doing that, and at the same time you’re trying to push out the immigrant workforce somehow or another, deport them or whatever you’re gonna do. You’re not going to get those impact, because who is going to do those jobs? Who is going to build the buildings that are going to house the new companies coming in? Who’s going to build the housing that we need to support that new workforce?

ABERMAN: So, in effect, what happens is, whether it’s failure to attract workers from a talent standpoint, or retain workers we have is, economic potential is lost because, if people aren’t working, you’re not creating output.

CLOWER: That’s right.

ABERMAN: Alright. Now, let’s turn our attention to the second part I promised our audience we’d focus on today, which is: you’re working at the center towards trying to figure out a new paradigm for looking at economic development. You know, when people think about economic development, I think most people think about it from the standpoint of elephant hunting. You know, bringing in the next big company. That’s where a lot of focus goes, like an Amazon or an Apple, but you don’t think that’s the right paradigm for the 21st century.

CLOWER: It’s not. And part of this is the shift in the nature of our work. Economic development, in terms of smokestack chasing as it was called in the old days, or bagging the buffalo, whatever it might be, actually came about more from manufacturing, employment, logistics, because for those companies, the cost of the the land, the cost of the building, and labor, still mattered dramatically. Now, labor cost matters for any company, of course, but it was really key to success and competition in that level.

It was cost driven, but as we’ve gotten more and more into technology and information industries, and particularly in this region, where the manufacturing base is so small, you know, it’s just not that big of piece of it, it is really very much our ability to have the workforce that you need. Some of this goes back to even the things that Richard Florida talked about in the creative class, and all that, how do you attract people, and what it really comes to is: quality of life, and our ability to attract and attain the talent that these companies need. Because what will happen, I think, in the future, if we move further into the 21st century, is that companies are not going to go to the lowest cost of doing business. They’re going to go where people want to live.

ABERMAN: Well, I think that we’re definitely moving towards a situation where the workforce is going to be bifurcated by technology, and the highly valuable people who can work with artificial intelligence, and be skilled, are going to have a lot of opportunities in front of them. Terry, how much of this, though, is really amenable to data analysis? You know, you talk about quality of life. Can you really measure quality of life?

CLOWER: Yeah, and we can do it. It’s a matter of the features and things that we want. So, do we have parklands, do we have, in some cases now, with millennials, they’re very into alternative transportation, in other words, do you have bike lanes available? Think about driving around in D.C., would you want to be riding a bicycle on the streets of D.C.? It’s a real challenge. So yes, there are ways we can measure it, but some of it is, how active are we being in our planning, in our economic development efforts, to really say, do we have the features that people need to live happy, fruitful lives?

ABERMAN: Terry, thanks for taking the time in coming in, and congratulations on the work that you and your team did around immigrants. I think it’s going to be very helpful to our regional conversation.

CLOWER: Thank you very much, Jonathan.

ABERMAN: That was Terry Clower, director for the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.