Improving Chicago's Access to Quality Jobs - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Improving Chicago's Access to Quality Jobs

Chicago's significant centers of employment and labor force are often located in different places. As a windfall of federal, state, and local funding arrives to improve infrastructure and support business recovery, we must emphasize connecting workers with quality jobs. 

"Chicago Water Taxi on the South Branch of the Chicago River" by vxla is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Neighborhoods across the city of Chicago are home to significant pools of skilled workers, with communities like Chicago Lawn and Irving Park each boasting labor forces exceeding 50,000 Chicagoans. While these ZIP codes have substantial concentrations of workers, they are not as concentrated with jobs. As the state of Illinois' economic engine, the Chicago region must confront the outcomes of our legacy of systemic disinvestment and marginalization of communities of color. As explored in the recently published Future of Work in Illinois report, Illinois’ recovery from COVID-19 provides a significant opportunity to meet this challenge: improving quality of life through meaningful employment in communities.

The city's central business districts play an important role as synergistic destinations for business and collaboration, but should not be a wholesale substitute for neighborhood-based employment. Increasing connections to employment centers and growing employment opportunities for residents in their neighborhoods will cut down on the emissions, costs, and time commitment of commuting.

Exclusionary policies have resulted in various systemic and spatial barriers to quality jobs and the development of intergenerational wealth. Black and Hispanic workers statewide saw elevated unemployment compared with their white peers prior to the pandemic, and this disparity has since significantly broadened for Black workers. The uneven availability of remote work, longstanding disparities in small business lending, and limited opportunity of critical jobs often filled by Black and Brown workers contribute to continued inequities in employment.

The Future of Work in Illinois report provides a roadmap for improving job quality and access to the middle class for workers across the state. The report contains strategies targeted toward both foundational and high-growth industries like Care Work, Clean Energy, Manufacturing, and Transportation. A data-driven approach is critical to advancing equitable outcomes across the job market post-COVID. The report advocates statewide measures of job quality to help drive workforce funding decisions and assess outcomes. The focus on measuring equitable outcomes is affirmed through strategies targeting improved statewide data infrastructure, which encourage more robust and aligned data collection practices across public, private, and nonprofit partners.

Along with the policies outlined in the Future of Work, we must also work to remedy the physical barriers to accessing high-wage employment and drive the creation of jobs across our neighborhoods. The maps below visualize the growth of jobs across the city of Chicago, breaking out the total number of jobs in sectors emphasized in the Future of Work report alongside workforce availability compared with employment by ZIP code. These maps show where job growth has occurred over the past decade in Chicago with the context of which neighborhoods have workforces that are greater in size than their local job bases. By understanding both where jobs are growing and where there is a significant surplus of local workers, the City and State can target resources to improve connectivity to jobs and help grow businesses in neighborhoods with a robust human capital.

As shown in the “Job Growth” map, the city has experienced mixed spatial trends in employment growth from 2010, the nadir of Chicago’s employment after the Great Recession, to 2021. Communities along the lakefront, from North to South, have seen solid growth in addition to those around Chicago’s urban core. Over the past decade, lakefront communities such as Lakeview saw 25.7 percent growth in jobs to a total of 13,744, while Pullman and Hyde Park both saw around 20 percent growth. Although starting from a smaller base, South Deering outstrips every other ZIP code, with 128.4 percent growth over the past decade to 8,294 jobs, followed by West Ridge at 71.2 percent growth to 7,882 jobs. Communities on Chicago’s Northwest and Southwest sides have seen jobs decline over the last decade, largely driven by losses in Manufacturing and Retail.

While the “Workers per Job” map does not correlate the industry of workers who live in the ZIP code with the industry of jobs located in the ZIP code, it demonstrates a quick analysis of the local labor force and to what extent they must leave their community for work. While both Chicago Lawn and Irving Park have more than 50,000 residents in the workforce, they have Worker-per-Job ratios of 7.3 and 2.9, respectively, as compared to the ZIP code for Lincoln Park with a ratio of 1.9. This indicates a significant need for residents to leave their community to find employment opportunities. Recognizing some communities are predominantly residential in nature, or have physical and environmental conditions less conducive to commercial uses, not all neighborhoods will have ample local employment opportunities. However, as the City embarks on multi-year capital improvements and a continued focus on neighborhood development, transportation access to employment centers and resources for local businesses are critical to improved access to quality jobs.

The Future of Work Task Force highlighted a number of strategies to reduce disparities in accessing high-quality jobs. From an infrastructure perspective, the task force advocated in Strategies 28 and 29 to fully fund transit systems and to include job access as a measure within the Illinois Department of Transportation’s performance-based planning (PBP) formula. The PBP formula determines how the State allocates funding for transportation infrastructure projects. Incorporating measures of job access will ensure that projects that provide communities access to meaningful employment opportunities will be prioritized. Ensuring that the State provides adequate funding for our public transit systems will mean these linkages provide reliable, consistent service for people in communities across the state to access employment. In Strategy 5, the task force advocates employers expand the scope of benefits they offer to support employees' transportation options, including defraying transportation costs. (MPC's Audrey Wennink explores some of these ideas and more in a recent related blog post.)

On the flip side, the City and State both need to support neighborhood-based businesses in creating jobs for their communities. As discussed in the report’s Small Business section, 99.6 percent of total businesses in Illinois qualify as small businesses, which employ 44.8 percent of workers statewide. However, Black and Brown entrepreneurs face significant barriers in accessing capital, with denial rates of 38 percent and 33 percent for Black and Latinx business owners respectively, compared with 20 percent for their white peers. As such, the Future of Work task force identified expanding access to flexible capital, technical assistance, and resources for sole-proprietors and worker cooperative as critical to driving growth. Chicago can play a role in expanding access to capital by ensuring development incentives, like Tax Increment Financing and Small Business Improvement Funds, maintain minimal barriers for disbursement and that their allocation is equitable across the city. With a significant pool of resources at its disposal, the City must strengthen its economic development strategies through the development of the We Will Chicago Comprehensive Plan, to ensure Black and Brown entrepreneurs can thrive and to help grow employment opportunities for Chicagoans in their neighborhood.


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