In a city like Albuquerque, New Mexico, where unemployment is currently at 6.4 percent, a big company’s decision to focus on working with local contractors and workers can make a world of difference. And with the second-highest unemployment rate in the country, New Mexico as a whole is rich with untapped workers who just need to hone the skills that employers need. On Sept. 27, Albuquerque’s biggest employers in the healthcare and education industries debuted a citywide initiative to start bridging these gaps. Called Healthy Neighborhoods Albuquerque, it rings six major organizations like Presbyterian Healthcare Services and the University of New Mexico’s Health Science Center into a pledge to start thinking local, training local and buying local.
Making the greatest impact on local employment numbers, these industries make up the city’s “anchor institutions.” In a population of about 556,000, education and healthcare providers employ more than 8 percent, or about 47,000 people. That number from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t include office or administrative positions like medical secretaries.
Still, Randy Royster, president and CEO of the Albuquerque Community Foundation, says there’s room for improvement.
One recurring employment gap in particular sticks out to him. Presbyterian Hospital, which employs more than 7,300 people, offers entry-level engineering positions — no degree needed, but some training required. Year after year the Albuquerque hospital, one of eight locations throughout New Mexico, has struggled to find workers equipped with the necessary training to fill these spots. They end up bringing in employees from outside the city, and in some cases even outside New Mexico, according to Royster.
“There are many, many millions of dollars of services and products that our anchor institutions access from out of state,” he says. Whether that’s contracting a national company like Aramark for laundry services or purchasing food from a major supplier like Sysco, there’s money being funneled into external services that local institutions could instead put toward building up local laundry companies or urban farms that supply directly to workplace cafeterias.
“The most successful thing we can do in terms of attracting jobs in New Mexico and developing our economy isn’t looking at ‘how can we get a Tesla to move to New Mexico?’” says Royster. “It’s about looking at what we have right here to develop job opportunities and training and purchasing, and therefore supplying these opportunities locally.”
Take laundry services as an example. Instead of using a national company that pays low wages, Albuquerque anchor institutions could pool funding and resources, along with loans from the city, to help build up a local worker-owned laundry cooperative that would contract directly with medical facilities and focus on hiring from the city’s unemployed. Workers would pay a small fraction of their hourly wage — 50 cents or less — into a cooperative stake, and have the potential to become profit-sharing owners, earning more than $10 an hour.
That’s exactly what medical institutions in Cleveland did as part of a similar local growth program spearheaded by the Cleveland Foundation back in 2005 called the Greater University Circle Initiative. The city and major employers invested $5.8 million into building an eco-friendly laundry cooperative in the city’s University Circle area, a network of six neighborhoods that wrap around the University Hospitals of Cleveland complex.
Before that co-op, called Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, existed, the Albuquerque Journal reports, one major medical facility in University Circle was hauling 20 million pounds of laundry to a cleaning center nearly 50 miles away every year. Shifting about one-fourth of that amount to the laundry cooperative meant Evergreen could launch with 50 jobs — many for previously incarcerated people.
Now the Evergreen Cooperative has branched out into other industries like renewable energy, and started up the country’s largest urban greenhouse, Green City Growers. Today it employs 120 people.
Cities take a risk when they allow huge chunks of the local workforce to depend on mega-rich, international companies only interested in using the community to build their portfolios. “Universities and hospitals have a unique ability [to guide buy local programs], because they’re already grounded in the community and they can help generate local wealth,” says Erin Kesler, spokesperson for the Democracy Collaborative.
Her organization, which focuses on building shared wealth and economic democracy in regions throughout the U.S., is advising on how Healthy Neighborhoods Albuquerque can reach its goals, just as it helped Cleveland develop the Greater University Circle Initiative and the Evergreen Cooperative. If all goes smoothly, and if the Cleveland Foundation’s success in Ohio is any indication, Albuquerque could start seeing this program start making a dent in its local employment numbers as early as 2017.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City.