Results of a December 2015 survey of 400 Arizona business leaders by the Arizona Commerce Authority, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and Alliance Bank show that leaders believe education is the greatest challenge to doing business in the state. The labor pool is lacking math, science and communication skills as well as motivation, problem solving and critical thinking skills, results show.
Doug Yonko, board chairman of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and vice president of communications for the Phoenix-based Hensley Beverage Company, said he does not believe many Arizona executives make a connection between weakness in the labor force and the Latino student achievement gap.
“I don’t think the issue is well known,” Yonko said. “The first thing we need to do is create an awareness that there is a significant gap. This is a good time because the business community right now is laser-focused on education.”
“The good news is that virtually everyone in the state’s top government and private industry leadership roles is finally getting the message that we have to change course,” said James Garcia, the Hispanic Chamber’s director of communications and public policy.
“Arizonans are tired of being told we’re at the bottom of the ladder on education, when we know it doesn’t have to be that way. The pressure is on now for leadership to respond with more than empty promises. Parents want to see results. Employers want to see results. Investors want to see results.”
Last year, the Hispanic chamber reported that Arizona Hispanic consumers would spend more than $40 billion on goods and services.
Two in-depth reports, Arizona State University President Michael Crow’s 2015 “Arizona’s Economic Imperative: The Impact of Latino Student Success,” and the Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy’s 2012 “Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona’s Economic Future” also analyze the issue.
Using data from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the reports show that the majority of Arizona jobs – 68 percent — will require postsecondary education by 2020.
The salaries of high school graduates tend to top out at $40,000 annually, while those with bachelor’s degrees typically earn about double, according to Crow’s report. Graduates with professional degrees often earn three times as much as people who have only attended high school, the report states.
Both reports show, however, that Arizona’s majority Latino public school children often do not keep up with their White peers when it comes to test scores, graduation rates and college success.
Another observer, Paul Koehler, director of the policy center at the non-profit WestEd, points to Arizona’s National Assessment of Educational Progress Scores as a subject of concern.
The NAEP, known as the nation’s report card, shows that Latino fourth and eighth graders lag behind White students in math and reading.
“Two-thirds of our Latino students are not reading at grade level and that is a real concern,” he said.
“You really have to worry. Most of our students are Latino and they have a proficiency gap. The state should be asking what it can do. We would not be looking at scores like this if we had done enough.”
What happens to some of these struggling Latino students as they grow older?
One answer can be found in a 2015 report by the national Measure of America of the Social Science Research Council. It found the Phoenix metro area to be among the worst places in the nation for “disconnected” Latino youth. The report states that nearly 24 percent of Maricopa County’s Latinos ages 16 to 24 do not work or attend school.
Rep. Reginald Bolding Jr., a member of the Arizona House of Representatives Education Committee and a Democrat from the west Phoenix community of Laveen, concurs. He believes Arizona lawmakers must give Arizona’s best teachers incentives to work in schools with high minority populations.
“Money and training – we need a multi-tiered approach to this,” he said. “We need to show teachers that we value them.”
A recent study published by the non-profit College Success Arizona stated that Arizona college graduates each contribute $600,000 to the economy over their lifetimes. The study concluded that Arizona must increase the number of its college graduates to remain competitive economically.
Increasing the number of Latino college graduates – one in seven Arizona Latinos has a bachelor’s degree compared with one in four from the population at large – is a goal suggested by College Success.
Unlike many other states, Arizona does not have a goal for increasing the number of residents with college degrees or certificates, although efforts to establish one are underway, led by the Arizona Board of Regents and a coalition of community partners. Arizona State University Michael Crow has suggested the state adopt a goal of 60 percent.
Paul Luna, President and CEO of Helios Education Foundation, says that the challenges the business community faces in Arizona around identifying a labor pool that is equipped with the 21st century skills today’s employers demand are real and will only get worse unless more action is taken to improve the state’s education systems.
One of Helios’ core beliefs is that education is an investment, not an expense. Through its partnerships and initiatives, the Foundation is working to ensure that all students graduate high school with the skills they need to succeed in college and career.
“We know that education contributes to a strong and robust economy for communities because a more educated and prepared workforce leads to more business growth and higher employment rates,” Luna said. “Arizona must prioritize the educational success of our students in order to secure the future economic viability of our state. This is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, ensuring a strong, qualified workforce pipeline and putting Arizona back on the path toward economic prosperity.”