I’ll be the first to tell you, you can’t MacGyver a robust economy with quick fixes. But we’re in a scenario requiring us to get truly creative and to make the most of our opportunity.
Like many communities, Lao Americans are faced with many unemployed but willing to work, understanding we need ways to make ends meet.
During the war, many Laotians didn’t have a chance to really finish their schooling while Laos was becoming the most heavily bombed nation in the world. Many of us originally obtained jobs in factories, cleaning and transport, sectors that have seen devastating layoffs in recent years. Sadly, refugees from Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia also face this dilemma.
Our Herculean challenge before us: We have hundreds of older unemployed workers. Among the Lao, for example, over 40% of us have less than a high school degree and less than 1 in 10 of us finished college. Other refugees have comparable statistics. Many elders have skill sets that just aren’t likely to be needed again for several more years.
I’m frustrated as we try to find a place for them. And I get angry some try to reduce it to: Learn more English, get a degree, learn how to use a new machine, as if that creates some magic wand of employability and everything’s going to be all better.
For older job-seekers, it’s hard to say additional education won’t merely incur additional debt. Even if they suddenly spoke perfect Queen’s English, would this honestly give them a greater advantage in re-entering the current workforce?
At the moment, we suffer a distinct lack of businesses in Minnesota who can easily absorb an influx of older employees from any culture.
Where are the sectors that could bring them back into the workforce with dignity?
Well-meaning experts primarily seek a new factory to shove our parents and uncles and aunties into, but maybe we ought to consider newer approaches that will stimulate long-term growth and economic vibrancy.
Obviously, one of the strongest sectors I advocate for are the arts. Consider traditional and contemporary orchestras and dance companies- whose events allow many other arts and services to flourish, from tailors to caterers, transport and jewelers, accountants and suppliers, even stage and set construction for plays and concerts. Likewise, growth and development in publishing, film and other media industries could bring many benefits to our community.
Will this employ everyone? Of course not, but it has a potential to encourage robust growth in many of the places we want growth, and the startup costs are much less-steep, with less restrictive barriers for entry than many other options I’ve seen proposed.
By engaging older members of our community within the arts, I confess, I see a worthwhile gamble: If we succeed, they’re employed and our culture flourishes and grows more vibrant. And even if we do not bring about a new renaissance in the community, the potential for amazing work to have been produced and presented to future generations within this time is great.
Without sounding hopelessly quixotic, I concede that if our elders are returned to widget factories, yes, they will make widgets. Good ones, perhaps even great ones. Thousands and thousands of such widgets. But who will truly remark a hundred years from now: “Such a fine widget they made!”
If we bring more of our elders into the arts, letting them participate in the telling of great stories, we will help them build a heritage for their descendants who can see what they dreamed and hoped for. Maybe I’m wrong, but history suggests it is the rare generation more interested in our tallies of things bought and sold instead of the art our predecessors made.
Our artists and others need to begin discussions of how to help our elders find jobs of meaning. An ability to work and participate in the community with dignity, especially for those who gave so much to bring us to this point is not a terrible thing to ask for.