Stanislaus County has made another of those dreaded Top 10 lists showing how poorly it stacks up against other parts of America. This time, the topic concerns how proficient our working-age residents are in English.
It turns out Stanislaus’ adults are twice as likely to be unable to communicate in English as those living elsewhere in the United States.
Nearly 1 in 5 Stanislaus adults do not understand our nation’s dominant language, the just-released Brookings study found. The same is true for San Joaquin County adults, and English proficiency levels are even lower in Los Angeles, Fresno and Kern counties.
Economically, that’s bad news because the report documents how non-English speakers most often get trapped in low-paying jobs or have no jobs. In Stanislaus, for example, more than one-third of them live in poverty.
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The study found nearly 62,000 of Stanislaus’ adults are not proficient in English, and their ranks have increased by more than 36 percent during the past dozen years.
“It’s a major challenge for our community,” said Jeff Rowe, director of Alliance WorkNet, which helps people find work and get job training. “Their prospects for employment are very, very limited.”
Rowe said that besides temporary work doing minimum-wage janitorial, landscaping and construction jobs, his agency has virtually no jobs to suggest for them.
“Low-level jobs slowly are being eliminated,” said Rowe, noting how automation is replacing unskilled manual labor. “If people want to better themselves, they’re going to have to learn English.”
That’s a message the Mexican Consulate should be stressing to its citizens living in the United States, suggested Yamilet Valladolid, who runs El Concilio in Modesto. Her organization provides assorted services to Spanish speakers.
“There are a lot of people who come here to work, and in their minds they’re going to go back to Mexico when they retire,” said Valladolid, noting how that was the case with her parents. “It’s just so easy for them to access services here in Spanish, and they’re happy not having to learn English.”
But if they lose their jobs, in a cannery or in agriculture, then they can’t find employment, Valladolid said.
“Places like Amazon won’t hire anybody who doesn’t speak English,” she warned.
And it’s a tough language to learn without formal classes, according to the Brookings report.
“Assuming that immigrants will ‘pick up the language’... is not an efficient strategy for improving labor market outcomes,” Brookings concluded. It stressed that “increasing the investment in adult English instruction now would enhance the human capital of immigrants that could lead to more productive work, and benefit their children.”
“There are not enough English-as-a-second-language classes available now,” said Valladolid, noting that many of Stanislaus’ adult schools cut such programs during the recession. She said the free ESL course El Concilio offers usually attracts standing-room-only crowds.
“There are unmet needs,” agreed Alice Pollard, who is working with Modesto Junior College and a consortium of school districts to expand adult education, including ESL programs.
Pollard’s group recently received a $300,000 planning grant from the state to determine how best to educate non-English speakers and the region’s other adults.
“We’re not going to bring jobs into our community unless we can raise education levels,” Pollard said.
The Brookings report, “Investing in English Skills: The Limited English Proficient Workforce in U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” is posted online at www.brookings.edu/research/reports2/2014/09/english-skills#/M10580.