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L.A. Workers Held Back by Low Education Rate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reyna Lavariega’s parents were too poor to buy a pencil or a notebook. That’s why they never sent her to school.

As a young adult, she cobbled together as much education as she could in Oaxaca, Mexico. Still, she was barely able to read and write when she joined her husband in Los Angeles 12 years ago.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 07, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 7, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Employment Policy Foundation--An A1 story Tuesday incorrectly identified a Washington research institution that analyzed educational levels in the work force. The correct name is Employment Policy Foundation.

Now Lavariega washes broken stoves and refrigerators for the family appliance repair business, which is run out of the basement of her rented home near MacArthur Park. She hopes for something better, but knows the odds are against her: “I have no skills, no education. All I have is a great desire to work. It isn’t enough.”

There are thousands like her in the blue-collar neighborhoods of Los Angeles: immigrants who never got past primaria, the basic six-year public education of rural Mexico and Central America. In the best of times, they hang on to jobs with landscaping services and in carwashes, garment shops and steamy restaurant kitchens. The recession has hit their tenuous lives hard, and a lack of skills makes it that much harder to claw back.

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It is a problem not only for Lavariega and other low-skilled workers, but also for the city that has been their beacon for two decades.

One in 10 adults in the Los Angeles region has six years of education or less. That rate is the worst of all U.S. metropolitan areas, including the immigrant magnets of New York, Chicago and Miami, and is more than double that of San Francisco and Sacramento, according to a tabulation of recent federal statistics for The Times.

Even compared to other California cities, Los Angeles stands out. Nearly 25% of Los Angeles adults never completed high school--about double the rate of San Francisco and San Diego. Only agricultural communities such as Visalia and Modesto have larger shares of nongraduates.

While shrinking nationwide, the pool of minimally educated adults has grown steadily in the Los Angeles metropolitan area for a generation, researchers said.

From 1983 to 1999, the number of workers lacking a high school diploma decreased by 20% nationwide, yet increased by 50% in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area, a separate study by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston showed.

“These findings reveal that the Long Beach-L.A. labor market is moving in a decidedly different direction than the nation as a whole, employing growing shares of high school dropouts in the [construction], goods-producing and retail-trade sectors,” wrote Neeta Fogg and Paul Harrington, who prepared the report for the U.S. Conference of Mayors work-force development summit in Long Beach last spring.

“Nationally, all three of these industry sectors substantially reduced their reliance on dropouts,” they wrote.

The trend has enabled the region to retain and even increase low-wage manufacturing and service jobs that have disappeared elsewhere and helps explain why blue-collar employment grew in Los Angeles at more than twice the national rate, the study said.

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But it also drives huge disparities in wealth and complicates a range of social issues, from education to health care.

Unless the cycle is interrupted, Harrington said, “it means rising poverty, more inequality, a less productive economy and probably more social disruption.”

Using numbers from the Current Population Survey of the Census Bureau, Harrington and Fogg looked at a period of wrenching change for Southern California, which lost thousands of high-wage, high-skilled jobs in aerospace and other manufacturing industries in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The region rebuilt a blue-collar base--becoming the national leader in manufacturing jobs for much of the last decade--but the work shifted to small, nonunion shops that produced clothing, furniture and other nondurable products.

The transformation of the Los Angeles economy coincided with tremendous demographic changes: Not only did the region draw more immigrants than anyplace else in the nation, but the new arrivals tended to have less education than immigrants to other areas.

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On average, about 37% of noncitizens in the nation’s metropolitan areas lack a high school diploma, according to the business-supported Economic Policy Institute in Washington. That rate jumps to 52% in the consolidated metro areas of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino, said institute labor economist Ron Bird.

Several researchers said the Los Angeles region is caught in a cycle in which the labor pool attracts employers dependent on low-skilled workers, which in turn attracts more such workers.

“We’ve become addicted to the availability of very-low-wage labor from Mexico,” said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, who directs UCLA’s North American Integration and Development Center. “We have used this unwittingly as an economic strategy, but it creates an industrial base that is not very productive and is vulnerable to low-wage competition around the world. In the long run, we can’t survive as a sweatshop economy.”

Researchers representing a range of political viewpoints have reached similar conclusions, but there is little agreement on the proper response. Ideas range from further restricting immigration to passing a general amnesty for illegal immigrants, which in theory would encourage them to seek better training and demand fair treatment on the job.

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Some argue that an increase in the minimum wage and beefed-up enforcement of labor laws would halt the proliferation of extremely low-skilled, exploitative jobs and thus cut the cycle. But they caution that a certain number of low-skilled, low-wage workers, particularly in service industries, benefit the economy overall.

“It’s almost impossible to look at the evidence and say, ‘This is good or bad and these are the policy implications,’ ” said David Card, a labor economist at UC Berkeley. “For high-income people, the ready supply of lots of low-skilled workers is quite a boon. They staff nursing facilities, do lawn care, work in carwashes. Those groups of workers don’t exist in other cities.”

Most analysts agree the skills deficit in Los Angeles requires more strategic economic development and an intensive commitment to job training, which has lately emerged as the nation’s answer to rising unemployment.

“This group of noncitizens is a great potential asset,” said Bird of the Economic Policy Institute, which contends that the nation is facing a long-term labor shortage that immigrants can help fill. “The challenge is to deliver appropriate services of education and training. In the long run, the returns to society have always been positive.”

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So far, however, training and development have been addressed in an ad hoc fashion, by state and local government programs and independent nonprofit groups. Still, there are scattered successes, noble efforts and sometimes overwhelming obstacles.

At the Pacoima Workforce Development Initiative, a privately funded job-training program of the Valley Economic Development Center, director Mario Matute struggles to match the needs of local employers with the area’s abundant supply of eager workers.

“The lack of skills and education are what’s holding them back,” Matute said from his cubbyhole office in a city building in Pacoima. “What I hear [from employers] over and over again is that their skills and what I have do notmatch.”

Even warehouse and factory jobs often require basic English literacy and sometimes rudimentary computer skills, he said. Those that don’t have those requirements generally pay less than $15,000 a year and offer little security.

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Matute, whose program handles 3,000 job seekers, tackles the biggest obstacles first. Applicants without legal residency are referred to a nonprofit immigration law center. Those without English proficiency--the majority--are guided to English-as-a-second-language classes. Many are sent around the corner to computer classes run by the Los Angeles Unified School District, where they learn not to fear the keyboard.

A few are funneled into vocational programs in health care, child care and janitorial services.

Among them is Veronica Berrios, a mother of four from El Salvador, who left school in the 11th grade and has cleaned houses during most of her nine years in Los Angeles.

Berrios is close to completing a two-year child-care training program, a collaborative effort between the Pacoima initiative and Mission College in Sylmar.

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While the program paid for baby-sitting for her own children, she studied English, child development, cultural diversity and other subjects. Last year, she landed a $10-an-hour job caring for infants at a day-care center in Arleta.

Throughout the region, community colleges, school districts and community organizations are trying to tackle the skills gap, with varying success.

Some students work all the way from below seventh-grade reading skills to a high school equivalency certificate, said Cynthia Moore, principal of the Metropolitan Skills Center in the Westlake district, one of several vocational training schools run by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

She conceded, however, that such achievements are rare. Among those who keep trying is Lavariega, 45, who has walked the 10 blocks from her home to a survival English class at the skills center every weekday morning for two years.

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For 2 1/2 hours, she joins 37 other students practicing the proper way to fill out a job application, ask for a favor and read a bus schedule in English.

Someday, said the mother of five, her diligence may pay off. Her ultimate goal? To land a steady factory job that pays the minimum wage, plus benefits.

She laughed as she said it, shaking her head. With her background, that modest goal seemed as unreachable as the moon.

*

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Education Levels

Adults 20 years and older whose highest grade completed is sixth or less, and total share of adults who never finished high school.

6TH GRADE NEVER FINISHED

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OR LESS HIGH SCHOOL

How L.A. Compares

Los Angeles 10.80% 24.40%

Atlanta 1.30% 12.30%

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Boston 1.40% 10.90%

Chicago 3.60% 13.50%

Denver 2.70% 10.50%

Houston 6.40% 22.70%

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Miami 9.60% 21.60%

New York 5.80% 21.00%

Seattle 2.30% 9.00%

Washington 1.60% 10.20%

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California Cities

Fresno 10.80% 18.80%

Modesto 19.30% 34.30%

Sacramento 3.80% 14.50%

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San Francisco 4.70% 11.70%

San Diego 3.00% 12.40%

Visalia 34.00% 53.00%

Source: Economic Policy Institute, based on Current Population Survey, Dec. 2001

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