Of children born in 1940, 92 percent would grow up to earn more money than their parents did, after adjusting for inflation.
By 1980, that figure had dropped to 50 percent.
With that stark statistic, Nisha Patel opened her keynote presentation before about 300 Northern Virginia business and community leaders Thursday at the “Shape of the Region Conference,” presented by the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia and other regional organizations.
“If people feel like it’s harder to get ahead than it used to be,” Patel said, “it’s because it is.”
The event, at Valo Park in Tysons, focused on the business case for economic mobility in the region. Patel and other speakers and panelists discussed the growing chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and ways to close that gap.
Patel, who lives in Washington, is managing director for Narrative Change and National Initiatives at Robin Hood, a New York foundation focused on fighting poverty. Previously, she was executive director of the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, an Urban Institute program supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Through two years of studies and community visits, that partnership identified a number of factors that contribute to the economic gap, including where people live.
“Zip code matters more than genetic code,” Patel said. “Hard work isn’t necessarily enough.”
She noted that women, African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely to work low-wage jobs, defined as those paying less than $12 an hour. In addition, she said workers are now more likely to be contractors than full-time employees and change jobs frequently, both of which mean they have less access to health insurance, disability insurance and retirement plans.
Strategies the partnership developed to close the income gap included creating access to good jobs, with a particular focus on improving health-care and related jobs that can’t be replaced by robots, ensuring that where people live doesn’t determine their economic future, and providing support that empowers lower-income families and gives them dignity.
The other keynote speaker, Brent Orrell, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, talked about training as a way to close the gap, but said that public support for skills training is fragile.
“The public wants to see people trying – the boot-strap ethic – to sustain additional investment in job training,” Orrell said.
Orrell cited a 2018 Harvard University study that found that 64 percent of people who graduate from college with degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, the so-called “STEM” fields, leave their STEM occupation within 10 years.
“That’s a big problem,” he added. “That’s a massive brain-drain going on.”
Although these workers often start at higher wages than their peers, that pay tends to plateau, and they have fewer promotion opportunities. At the same time, technology is changing so rapidly that younger workers may have more up-to-date skills.
The “technology talent pipeline” was the subject of a panel discussion moderated by Bobbie Kilberg, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. During that session, Steve Partridge, vice president of workforce and economic development for Northern Virginia Community College, talked about NVCC’s efforts to help high schools develop career pathways leading toward jobs in information technology. He noted that 40,000 IT jobs go unfilled every year in the region.
“If we want the jobs to continue in Northern Virginia, we have to be more proactive,” Partridge said. “We need to get people into the job market faster, make them work-ready in months, not years.”
In addition to the Community Foundation, the event was presented by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Virginia Technology Council and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission.