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
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
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
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.