Even in good times: the west side struggles

Story and photos by SPENCER BUCHANAN 

In February 2020, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., stirred up controversy when she said in part, “It’s a physical impossibility to lift yourself up by a bootstrap, by your shoelaces.”

Ocasio-Cortez and others explained further that the original meaning of the idiom “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was meant as a joke and that the narrative has driven out good policy in helping struggling people. The narrative the idiom formed is one that disregards the barriers that the working-class and marginalized have to deal with, despite the recent economic gains and the shrinking unemployment rate. 

It can be hard to break into the job market. It can be particularly difficult for immigrants and refugees to find stable, well-paying employment. Many struggle to apply for jobs and even more face structural challenges in acquiring the skills and training necessary to qualify for positions. These problems can be found nationwide but the impact can be seen on the west side of Salt Lake City.

The west side has long been a working-class neighborhood and in recent years has become increasingly diverse. With large immigrant and refugee populations, residents of the west side often have to make huge adjustments to enter the American job market.

Organizations like the University Neighborhood Partners (UNP) Hartland Partnership Center, the Rose Park Neighborhood Center, and the Utah Department of Workforce Services work to help west-side residents deal with barriers that are commonly overlooked.

“Individuals come in seeking support in finding jobs. So that can vary in need. Sometimes we’ll make resumes. We have a lot of templates and we’ll actually help make the resumes with individuals. And often we’ll just help apply for jobs,” said Amelia Cope, an intern at Hartland and social work student at the University of Utah.

Cope explained that those who come to Hartland need help with several issues. Many clients don’t have an email account or computer access, several don’t have transportation, and many speak English as a second language. 

The Rose Park Neighborhood Center at 754 N. 800 West.

Lenn Rodriguez, a site coordinator at Hartland, stated that beyond the technology gap and language difficulties, many recent immigrants and refugees have experienced or are experiencing trauma that can be debilitating. According to Rodriguez, this is why the Hartland Partnership Center also provides counseling and therapy for many new immigrants and refugees.

“A lot of the people that are coming here have trauma from wherever they came and haven’t processed that. That affects your ability to seek out employment and other services,” Rodriguez said. 

But a major problem that Rodriguez sees is the lack of “good jobs” and training for immigrants and refugees.

 “We work with a lot of professionals, also with people that hold degrees in other countries like engineers, doctors, teachers, from Iraq, from Syria, from El Salvador. They come here and they can’t work in that field that they studied. So they become cleaners, they work at the airport, and hotels,” Rodriguez said.

The University Neighborhood Partners Hartland Partnership Center, located at 1578 W. 1700 South.

Rodriguez stated that many professionals have to start again in education and training if they want to work in their original field. Unfortunately, many job seekers in the west side are suffering from a wider issue in the market.

“The problem is: it’s very difficult to do training,” said Cihan Bilginsoy, a professor in economics at the University of Utah who specializes in labor issues.

According to Bilginsoy, the nature of training and educating would-be job seekers is a costly and lengthy process. This process keeps many employers from implementing the necessary training or education that can lead to more stable, fulfilling, and well-paying jobs.

This cost and investment draws companies away from creating large training programs. He said many employers will instead invest in a few seasoned professionals and have other positions filled with very specifically trained but generally low-skilled employees. These “task-oriented” workers are put in vulnerable positions without marketable skills.

“These semi-skilled workers can be shed very easily, they receive low wages, they’re marginal and dispensable,” Bilgonsoy said.

The Associated General Contractors of Utah is one of the few organizations in the state that provides professional training.

In his research, Bilgonsoy has found that most western nations have a skills gap issue. Nations like Germany or Australia have created social and government structures that organize stakeholders like the government, the unions, and employers to cooperate and fund training in various fields. There have been pushes by the federal and some state governments to incentivize training programs mostly in the form of tax credits and work programs, but what’s being offered is often insufficient for companies to wholly invest into programs.

“We need to provide incentives for employers to provide training, we need to solve the problem of market failure in training. International evidence shows that states, or federal governments need to take a leading role in bringing together employers and trade unions, so these stakeholders share the risk,” Bilgonsoy said.

The challenges facing west-side residents go beyond Salt Lake City. The struggles that new immigrants, refugees, and the working-class have in finding gainful employment can be linked to a lack of skills necessary for an ever-advancing economy. Organizations like the Hartland Partnership Center do well to help west-side residents meet the basic needs for job seeking, but a large market and social change is necessary to meet the needs of the residents.