Original URL:  http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/327/oped/Mastering_English_for_economic_reasons+.shtml

Mastering English for economic reasons
Boston Globe 11/23/2002
By Lawrence K. Fish

HE RECENT VOTE in favor of Question 2 by Massachusetts voters underscores the importance an overwhelming number of voters place on making our school children proficient in English. But what of their parents?

While English proficiency is seen as one of the leading determinants in students' success in school, proficiency in English is often the first rung on the ladder for the thousands of non-English speakers who come here searching for economic
opportunity. These first-generation Americans have become a critically important part of the economy of our Commonwealth.

Immigrant workers are in every occupation and every industrial sector in Massachusetts. From the mid-1980s through 1997, immigrants from virtually every land were responsible for 82 percent of the net growth in the Commonwealth's labor force, according to a report authored by Northeastern University labor economist Andrew Sum.

According to Sum, 337,000 immigrants arrived in Massachusetts during the 1990s. Immigrants make up 45 percent of the state's blue-collar workforce, 27 percent of the service jobs, 14 percent of the professional positions, 10 percent of companies' support staff, and nearly 10 percent of managers and executives.

Talk to a businessperson, and he or she will underscore the findings of the Northeastern study of the significant contributions immigrants make to our workforce.

At Citizens Bank, more than 10 percent of our employees have English as their second language, and we speak 42 different languages in our branches.

However, while a considerable number of immigrants have at least a bachelor's degree enabling them to get high-skilled jobs soon after they arrive on our shores, on average they have less education than native-born workers. The study showed that 59 percent of newcomers had a high school education or less, compared to 43 percent of native-born residents.

Compounding the lack of education is a language barrier that adds to the difficulty they face in getting into the economic mainstream that will carry them to higher-paying jobs.

How important is English proficiency? Immigrants who are proficient in English are likely to earn about 20 percent more than those who are not.

This Commonwealth, the birthplace of public education and bilingual education, has long understood the importance of giving children the tools they need to excel in school, go on to college if they choose, and get better-paying jobs than their parents were able to get.

Even so, the demand has far outpaced the supply of courses in bilingual and English as a second language.

That's why a number of organizations, including The Boston Foundation, Citizens Bank, the State Street Foundation, Fleet, Verizon, and the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, answered Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's call nearly three years ago to provide ESL courses to their employees and members of the communities where they did business.

And yet, collectively we have barely made a dent in the demand. Earlier this year, more than 40 of our employees and community residents completed the ESL course we offer at our operations center in Medford. A recent Globe story noted that more than 14,000 Massachusetts residents have enrolled in government-funded ESL courses but the waiting list, often stretching to two or three years, totals 15,500. In Boston alone, Menino has pegged the waiting list at nearly 2,000.

Clearly, more needs to be done. And with the budget crisis facing the governor-elect and the Legislature, it is wishful thinking to hope that publicly funded ESL programs will be able to keep up with the demand.

That means the business community, organized labor, and nonprofit groups, who understand the contributions of immigrants to our economy, need to do more.

One place to start is by putting the state's business and labor leaders together with the heads of the major nonprofits and the experts at the state Department of Education to update our commitments for meeting the exploding demand for ESL

The battle over Question 2 was contentious. But the battle is over. The opportunity now is to leverage the public support behind Question 2 to help not only the next generation of immigrant children, but their parents as well, who are key contributors to our economy. It is a worthy investment with a high return.

Lawrence K. Fish is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Citizens Financial Group Inc.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 11/23/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.



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