The Omaha-Council Bluffs area has one of the nation’s fastest-growing working-age populations with limited English skills, according to a Brookings Institution report made public today.

The language barrier limits the workers’ contributions to the metropolitan area’s economy, the report said, and making English education a priority could improve Omaha’s standard of living.

“Our community needs to be focused on helping skill these people up,” said Wendy Boyer, senior vice president for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

Removing that barrier would allow those workers to qualify for better jobs. But teaching English to working adults, most of them with families, is a complicated effort that requires coordination of transportation and child care, among other challenges.

“We want everyone to speak English, but we don’t provide the resources for it, especially for working adults,” said Lourdes Gouveia, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “There’s not a very concentrated, coherent, thoughtful effort. It’s by happenstance.”

The Brookings report said the Omaha metropolitan area had 38,695 people ages 16 to 64 with limited English proficiency in 2012, an increase of 95.1 percent from 2000. That growth rate was fourth-highest out of 89 metropolitan areas in the study and was nearly five times the national growth rate for that period.

Omaha, however, is below the national average in the percentage of people with limited English proficiency, at 6.1 percent compared with 9.3 percent nationally.

Compared with the national average of working-age people with limited English, the report’s author said, Omaha has more recent immigrants and more who are employed but fewer with high school or college educations.

The report, based on Census Bureau figures, said that of the people in Omaha who have limited English proficiency:

» 27.9 percent are “poor,” compared with 24.6 percent nationally. The median individual income is $23,000 a year, compared with $26,000 nationally.

» 65.1 percent speak Spanish at home, 10.2 percent other Indo-European languages, 18.4 percent Asian-Pacific languages and 6.3 percent other languages.

Of the 89 metro areas, the report said, only Indianapolis and two Florida communities, Cape Coral-Fort Myers and Lakeland-Winter Haven, had larger increases from 2000 to 2012. In general, cities with the largest numbers of people with limited English proficiency had smaller percentage increases.

The report, by Brookings research analyst Jill H. Wilson, is the first to track limited English proficiency on a metropolitan level.

“National, state, and regional leaders can enhance both the human capital and economic mobility of their current and future workforce by investing in English instruction,” Wilson said. “As the nation discusses how to build a skilled workforce, a focus on enabling immigrants to become more productive members of society will help everyone in the long run.”

She said English skills of adults also influence the academic and economic success of their children.

Gouveia, the UNO sociologist, said the task of English training for adults has fallen mostly to community groups.

Last fall, for example, the Omaha Learning Community opened a newly renovated South Omaha learning center, a former library with three classrooms to teach adults English and other skills they need to help their children in school.

Foundations helped pay the cost, but such classes are “bursting at the seams,” Gouveia said. Nationally, 57 percent of English programs for adults had waiting lists, some with backlogs up to three years.

People who don’t speak English may work more than one job to make ends meet or have jobs with unpredictable hours, she said, and usually have family responsibilities that make attendance difficult.

She said she’s seen firsthand the desire of English learners to master the language.

Second- and third-generation Omaha residents can suffer from language deficiency because their parents speak another language at home and can’t help them with their schoolwork, Gouveia said. Immigrants and their children are accounting for most of the state’s population growth.

“It’s all about having the political will to say, ‘We want everyone to have one of the most important skills in order to have a 21st century labor force which is proficient in English,’ ” she said.

Boyer, with the Omaha chamber, said the Brookings report shows a language barrier affecting a significant portion of the Omaha workforce.

Many of the people who lack English proficiency have skills and experience from their home countries that they can’t use here, she said. “If they could learn English, they really could play a significant role in the economy. It’s the language barrier that’s preventing them from being able to access higher quality, higher-skilled jobs.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1080, steve.jordon@owh.com

Limited-English workforce   
 OmahaDes MoinesU.S.
Number38,69519,37919,151,784
Portion of total population6.10%4.60%9.30%
Change from 2000 to 201295.10%69.40%19.80%
Of those with limited English proficiency ...   
Spanish spoken at home65.10%48.90%66.30%
Are recent immigrants63.30%48.20%44.00%
Have high school   
or college education49.00%53.90%59.90%
Are working70.10%76.20%64.40%
Median income$23,000 $26,000 $26,000
Source: Brookings Institution  

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