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This is fourth part of a series of questions about San Diego’s economy we’re asking economic leaders who will be a part of the 2010 Workforce Summit.

Today we’re presenting the ideas of Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. She’s answering questions already answered by others in part one, part two and part three.

Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council:

What have we been doing wrong?

When our economy was doing exceptionally well, with tremendous growth in the construction, tourism and service sectors, we never put in place the protections necessary to ensure San Diego’s workforce would have the wages, availability of health care and training opportunities to create a pathway to the middle class. So, of course, when the economy crumbled, we had an hourglass economy whose ends grew farther and farther from one another.

Today, almost a third of working-age households in San Diego County have incomes below what they need to meet basic living expenses. Half of those struggling households include someone with a full-time job.

When construction work dwindled in the private sector, contractors and construction workers alike looked to government for help. However, to ensure their profit margin, the contractors pushed a policy agenda to ensure there would be no rules governing wages, healthcare and apprenticeship opportunities. So, while contractors keep their head above water during this economic downturn thanks to infrastructure and school bonds, and economic stimulus opportunities, their workers are powerless to demand an equitable piece of the pie.

At a time when only one new worker is entering the construction trades for every four who are retiring, we need to create incentives to keep workers involved in one of the few industries we have left in San Diego during feast and famine. And, we need to make sure that construction work is not a job, but a career with healthcare, retirement security and training opportunities.

Likewise, during the tourism boom, elected officials and policy makers looked the other way as developers and hotel operators made record profits and the service workers in that industry fought an uphill battle for the right to collectively bargain, attain living wages and healthcare. While major tourism destinations throughout the country — like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Las Vegas — recognized the need to make tourism-based service work a self-sustaining job for the betterment of the entire economy, San Diego allowed the bottom of our economy to get squeezed even further.

These realities have stifled the opportunity to gain consumers and taxpayers in a huge segment of our workforce.

How does San Diego’s economy differ?

One of San Diego’s greatest challenges is its geography.

With the Mexican border in such close proximity, we saw a very quick departure of our local manufacturing base and the middle class jobs that it had previously created. It has also become difficult for service and construction employees to gain a foothold from where they can build their own careers with some stability, as businesses know there is a constant supply of workers willing to clock in for less pay and no benefits right across the border. San Diego’s leaders are prone to neglect the reality that service-sector type work is some of the only available opportunities left for local workers, and they have been disdainful to require standards and expectations that would ensure that the service economy will create sustainable jobs.

What does San Diego’s economic future look like?

San Diego changed dramatically as the public invested hundreds of millions of dollars in downtown’s redevelopment over the last 30 years. This public funding was intended to revamp blighted communities, and it has served as an economic boom to countless developers, real estate professionals, hotel and restaurant owners and bankers. But the funding also helped create thousands of low-wage jobs, forcing workers to live in poverty or struggle to make ends meet. We can’t build a strong economy by creating jobs that require working people to rely on taxpayer-funded safety net programs, further burdening our healthcare system with uninsured families.

We currently have proposals before the City Council, and are extending them to the state legislature, that will require that job quality be part of the discussion in redevelopment. As our redevelopment dollars have been extended tremendously by legislative act, so should our efforts to create self-sustaining jobs for every San Diegan that works full-time downtown.

A shift in the quality of jobs created in the construction, tourism and service sector would create a stronger economic base of consumers and lift our tax base. It would also reduce the need for taxpayer funded programs that essentially serve to subsidize the large developers, contractors and operators who have previously refused to equitably distribute the benefits of publicly funded redevelopment with our local low-wage workforce.

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The San Diego Workforce Partnership Workforce Summit takes place at the Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall on Thursday, November 18, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. A breakfast will be followed by a keynote address by Robert Reich, former United States Secretary of Labor and current professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Edited by Grant Barrett, engagement editor for voiceofsandiego.org. Drop him a line at grant@voiceofsandiego.org, call him at (619) 550-5666, and follow him on Twitter @grantbarrett.

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