Ignoring the Answer in Plain Sight

By Stephen Steinlight on February 4, 2011

The title of the Washington Post story poses a timely question of great importance: "Why does Fresno have thousands of job openings - and high unemployment?". However, the writer refuses to provide an honest answer by leaving unexplored and ruling out of the equation a vital area of inquiry, including readily available supporting data. In what inevitably turns out to be a classic of self-delusion and evasion, he writes a 1,700-word feature without so much as a passing reference to what is staring him, along with the rest of us, right in the face.

One of the principal causes of Fresno's predicament is censored. Remarkably enough, he spirits it away despite the fact that it has caused the greatest economic damage to that state and represents a growing danger to the nation as a whole. As data show, the once Golden State, the dream-turned-nightmare of America's future, currently has the sixth-highest income disparity in the nation, worse than Mississippi's in 1970, and a state that once had one the seventh most educated workforce in the nation now ranks 50th, dead last. This happened as the share of California's population comprised of immigrants (legal and illegal) tripled from 1970 to 2008, growing from 9 percent to 27 percent. Unchecked, this colossal drag on the economy has the capacity to undermine American global economic competitiveness. No matter how self-evident, it is conspicuous in the Post story only by its absence. The refusal to mention it suggests willful blindness verging on the irrational. If the Post's commitment to certain cherished socio-political myths weren't so absolute this factor might at least have been mentioned, even as a secondary or tertiary contributor to Fresno's problem. But any mention appears to be impermissible: it would constitute a sacrilege by affronting the political correctness that is the Post's ersatz religion.

What results from self-censorship is incompetent journalism. This embarrassingly shoddy article curiously mirrors Fresno's situation. The journalist who wrote the story and the paper for which it was written are too ideologically blinkered to get it right. In other words, ideological constraints have dumbed-down a journalist and made him unable to answer his own question. The same constraints have so lowered the standards of one of the nation's newspapers of record that it publishes a story with a gigantic, gaping omission at its center: one that's metaphorically setting off bells, whistles, sirens, and flashing red lights. Like Fresno's workers, the Post can't handle a job that requires advanced skills; it is simply not up to the task. The only consolation its author may find is that no illegal alien is likely to take his job.

The story is also misleading in how it poses the problem writ large, Fresno's situation as it encapsulates the nation's: the grave difficulties facing millions of workers without advanced education or higher skills confronting a systemic shift in the American workplace where decent jobs require these. The "problem" is certain to increase, though calling it a "problem" is arguably a misnomer because the move to a knowledge-based economy is arguably in the national interest, provided the problem of high unemployment can be addressed and it will not end in the creation of a socially dangerous permanent underclass bypassed by the information revolution. The dishonesty is readily noticeable in two ways. First, it characterizes all workers as Americans, when that is hardly the case: millions of illegal aliens and low-skill foreign-born legal residents are also in the workforce. Second, even while it pinpoints "new economy" jobs for which Fresno's workers are unprepared, it also cites a great many unfilled jobs requiring no more than middle-level skills and/or a high school education.

It is the second admission – the first is an invisible reality – that permits us to ignore the omission and cut through the fog of obfuscation and find the footprints of the unmentionable, unnamed culprit early in the article. It is one thing to point out that the "7,000-employee Community Medical Centers say they cannot find enough qualified technicians, therapists." But it is quite another that the Medical Centers are also unable to find "custodians willing and able to work with medical waste." The custodians would require a high school education and then special training. Another local firm, Jain Irrigation, has many jobs paying $15-an-hour to run machinery to produce irrigation tubing at 600 feet an hour, 24/7.

"Getting the right people" would not represent a problem if one were concentrating the hiring on American workers, virtually all of whom have high school diplomas: only 6 percent of native-born workers in California lack one. However, according to data from the Pew Hispanic Center, fully 72 percent of all Mexican migrant workers have not completed high school, and even in the cohorts of younger migrants, between a quarter and a third had no education beyond primary school. Moreover, these truncated "educations" have taken place in some of the worst school systems in the world. Again, by way of contrast, only 2 percent of American workers have not completed 9th grade.

The only other accidental hint that Fresno's large population of transnational migrants is almost inarguably at the core of the problem appears near the conclusion of the story. It is mentioned in a discussion of how Fresno's civic leadership is hoping to turn the problem around. Recognizing high school students require knowledge more immediately suited to the demands of the workplace, it has created a polytechnic institute to provide it, and is continually updating the curriculum to meet changing needs. At the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, which serves high school students from Fresno and nearby Clovis, the first discipline cited where improvement is critical – it is given even higher priority than math or science – is English language skills. Having been a professor of English for many years I can attest that entering American college freshmen rarely write like Jane Austen, but the great majority whose native language is English have no difficulty communicating with considerable precision orally and can be quickly transformed into competent, even relatively skilled writers. However, the problems with ESL students are enormous and mostly insoluble within the time normally devoted to imparting what passes for "fluency".

While the article eschews connecting actual dots, it devotes considerable time to theorizing by economists, some of which seems more metaphysical than scientific. A Georgetown economist tells us "economies are funny", and after huffing and puffing along happily they "take a while to reorganize everything" after they run off the rails. The predominant school of opinion regarding persistent unemployment is the absence of 21st century knowledge, understanding, and skills, and the solution most offered is a massive concerted effort to educate the labor force what it needs to know. Several economists quoted admit they their previous focus had been on low demand; now they see the biggest problem is "finding skilled workers." The employers agree, and many find themselves doing the training, teaching people how to perform skilled industrial jobs, old economy jobs, requiring no more than a high school education.

It's almost certainly the case that some incongruence between employers' higher expectations for employees and the skills of local workforces exist across the country and must be addressed. But is there no reason to suspect the unusually high unemployment in Fresno may be attributable, at least in large measure, to its demographics? As noted, neither the author nor any of the economists quoted in the piece so much as broach the subject. A brief look at data from the Census Bureau suggests something very important is missing.

According the data from the Census Bureau, in 2007, 21 percent of the population of the Fresno area was foreign-born (some 219,510). From 2000 to mid-2007 there was a 13.5 percent increase in this population; the increase in native-born was 13.3. Increasing the effect of immigration are the children born to foreign-born parents in the U.S.; nationally, the number of births among the foreign-born is roughly twice their share of the population. In Fresno, that would constitute a 42 percent share of the area's total births, accounting for about 7,500 annually. If we add the arrival of immigrants to their relatively high birthrates, it's a reasonable estimate this population adds approximately 13,000 to the Fresno metro area annually, accounting for more than three-quarters (77 percent) of the areas annual population increase, a huge percentage, and one that will likely continue to grow.

We noted that Fresno's Center for Advanced Research and Technology made English-language acquisition its first priority. For good reason. In 2000, fully 40.3 percent of Fresno area residents (age 5 and older) spoke a language other than English at home, half of them speaking English less than "very well" – that means 20 percent of the people in Fresno have not mastered English, a fact that has obvious implications for workplace performance. Given the subjectivity of the phrase "less than very well", along with the natural tendency to put the best face on things, in a culture in which functional illiteracy in two languages is especially high among those who speak some English and some Spanish, it is probable that "less than very well" is better translated as "barely".

The national origins of the immigrant population in the Fresno metro area are also very likely pertinent to the seeming incongruence between an abundance of skilled jobs and a high unemployment rate. As is the case across the United States, Mexican immigrants are by far the most numerous. While there are cohorts of immigrants from many other countries – Laos, Thailand, India, and so on – the total from Mexico admitted in the 1990s (15,763) substantially outnumbers the combined total from the next nine countries of origin (12,824), and probably from all other countries.

The educational background of Mexican and Central American transnational migrants is the lowest of all immigrant groups; fully 60 percent of working-age Mexican immigrants lacked a high school diploma. While many have a strong work ethic, they do not represent a skilled labor force. During Fresno's housing boom they undoubtedly found employment in construction, taking jobs from American workers as employers hired them as cheap labor, permanently worsening working conditions in that industry. The housing boom over, they lack the skills for the jobs that now go begging in Fresno. Even before the recession, in 2007, half of families nationwide headed by Mexican immigrants were using at least one major welfare program, 47 percent lacked health insurance, 64 percent lived in or near poverty.

Yet none of this is so much as referenced in a piece claiming to look for an answer to "Why does Fresno have thousands of job openings - and high unemployment?" One of the answers, surely, is massive low-skill immigration.