As the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests show, many in America's middle class are angry about the uneasy economic circumstances in which they find themselves. Most typical wage earners have endured decades of stagnant wages even as costs for food, health care, housing and college tuition have continued to rise.
In short, average Americans are feeling pinched and far less wealthy than they once did. But there is a way to help reinvigorate the middle class while also rebuilding the nation's failing infrastructure, a recently published study suggests, by seeking to include those who have been traditionally underrepresented in the construction industry.
That aim is being achieved in many places across the U.S. through what are known as community workforce agreements (CWAs), according to a study by Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
First put in force early last decade, CWAs are a form of project labor agreement (PLA) -- contracts that establish work rules on a project-by-project basis -- that have been used for decades by many governments. But CWAs go further, as principal researcher Maria Figueroa recently noted at a press conference in Manhattan, by targeting specific populations for employment on private- and public-sector construction projects.
"The findings of our study indicate that -- particularly since 2004 -- PLAs are becoming comprehensive in their scope," Figueroa said, adding that the most likely used workforce provisions include the training and hiring of veterans, minorities, women, low-income earners and local residents.
Although San Jose has an exceptionally small education gap, it has an above-average unemployment rate. This is because the city’s manufacturing sector took a major hit during the recession. The city’s population is highly educated due in large part to the technology industry. Cisco Systems is headquartered in the city, which has been nicknamed the “Capital of Silicon Valley,” and other large tech companies, such as IBM, employ many people there.
> Unemployment rate: 7.5%
> Change in unemployment from pre-recession low: +3.7%
> Median household income: $65,101
Minneapolis’s education gap is kept small by the University of Minnesota, which is located in the metropolitan area, and by a number of successful local companies that continue to hire. Six different Fortune 500 corporations are headquartered in the city, including Target, U.S. Bancorp and Ameriprise Financial. Unemployment increased 3.7% since the pre-recession low — a small amount relative to most of the country’s metropolitan areas.
> Unemployment rate: 7.1%
> Change in unemployment from pre-recession low: +3%
> Median household income: $69,907
The Boston metropolitan area is home to some of the top schools in the world, including Harvard, Tufts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These schools support the area’s demand for a highly educated workforce. Boston has highly developed health care and education industries. Both fields have been among the most resilient during the recession, according to Brookings.
> Unemployment rate: 9.1%
> Change in unemployment from pre-recession low: +5%
> Median household income: $64,219
Seattle is considered one of the most literate cities in the U.S. There are nearly 20 colleges and universities within the city limits. It is also home to several large companies, including Starbucks, Amazon.com and Microsoft, which is the second-biggest employer in the city. Boeing relocated its corporate headquarters to Chicago some years ago, but still remains Seattle’s biggest employer, which is why the city is often called “Jet City.”
> Unemployment rate: 10.1%
> Change in unemployment from pre-recession low: +5.8%
> Median household income: $74,876
San Francisco is a major biotechnology and biomedical center. The city’s technology industry, which is closely tied to neighboring San Jose, has drawn thousands of highly educated, skilled workers to the area in recent years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Despite this, the metropolitan area has an above-average unemployment rate. This is primarily the result of “the difficulty of being in California during the recession,” says Brookings’s Jonathan Rothwell. The state was badly hurt by the collapse of the housing bubble.
> Unemployment rate: 8.4%
> Change in unemployment from pre-recession low: +4.8%
> Median household income: $60,110
Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham make up what is commonly referred to as the “research triangle” or, simply, “the triangle.” The region is home to three major universities: UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Duke. Raleigh’s biggest employers are either institutes of education, hospitals, or biotech research centers.
> Unemployment rate: 8.5%
> Change in unemployment from pre-recession low: +4.5%
> Median household income: $81,114
The Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metropolitan area is home to a number of large corporations, due in large part to the area’s proximity to Manhattan. The metropolitan area is known primarily as a financial hub. It is home to Bridgewater Associates, which is the world’s largest hedge fund, Aladdin Capital, and SAC Capital Advisors. Many of the area’s largest employers are also in the field of health care services.
> Unemployment rate: 8.0%
> Change in unemployment from pre-recession low: +5.5%
> Median household income: $56,510
The Provo-Orem Metropolitan Statistical Area is home to Brigham Young University. The 30,000-student institution serves as the intellectual engine for the region, and many of those students end up at the large software and tech companies in the area. Symantec (NASDAQ: SYMC), Corel and Novell are headquartered here, as are several biotech companies. In general, the region has a very diverse economy, with jobs available across most major industries.
> Unemployment rate: 6.0%
> Change in unemployment from pre-recession low: +3%
> Median household income: $56,519
Washington D.C. has both resilient industries and an extremely low education gap. The metropolitan area is helped immensely by being the country’s capital. As of 2008, about one-third of the jobs in Washington D.C. were with the federal government, according to the Department of Employment Services. The metro area is also home to many educational institutions, such as Georgetown University and George Washington University.
> Unemployment rate: 5.5%
> Change in unemployment from pre-recession low: +1.7%
> Median household income: $58,775
Madison’s unemployment rate of 5.5% is the 20th lowest across all U.S. metropolitan statistical areas. The city is the home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is the one of the largest employers in the region, second only to the state government. The university’s hospital is one of the biggest training hospitals in the country, and there are several other major hospitals in the region. Madison is also home to a variety of other businesses, including several insurance firms and a group of biotech companies. Nearly half of the city’s population holds a bachelor’s degree.