Investing in Hamilton’s Human Capital

If you haven’t already, check out this month’s issue of Scientific American, which has an exclusive focus on cities. In one piece, urban economist Edward Glaeser compares US cities that have recovered from declines with those that have not, and draws the conclusion that human capital is the decisive factor.

Three times in its history, Boston has gone into decline, and three times, Boston has managed to reinvent itself. Each time, the key has been its human capital. High education levels and local investment in R&D mean that Bostonians can shift their talents to new industries when old industries die and new opportunities present themselves.

Contrast Buffalo:

Buffalo is half the city it used to be and one of the most impoverished urban areas in the country. The federal and state governments have poured money into the city, trying to revitalize it, but the sad fact is that it simply no longer serves as the transportation hub it once was. Its forbidding climate and low average education levels are disincentives for private investment.

As Hamilton Community Foundation prepares to release this year’s Vital Signs report, I’m mindful of our great potential to develop Hamilton’s human capital through education – and of the challenges we still face.

In general, we are getting better at supporting students through high school completion. The high school non-completion rate for people aged 15 and over has fallen steadily from 27% in 2000 to 19.9% in 2010. That’s a bit higher than the provincial average of 18.7%. Likewise, the rate of post-secondary completion rose from 43.4% in 2000 to 51.1% last year. (Again, we’re slightly worse than the provincial average of 52.7%.)

Among younger students, our EQAO standardized provincial test scores for students in Grades 3, 6, and 9 are improving, but still slightly below the provincial average, at least for the public school board. (The Catholic board consistently achieves above-average test results.)

However, in all cases, results vary widely from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. For example, the percentage of 20-24 year olds who have no high school diploma and are not in school ranges from zero in some neighbourhoods to over 65% in others.

If we are to put Hamilton on a trajectory of recovery and renewed prosperity, we need to find ways to keep more of our children in school, especially in impoverished and vulnerable neighbourhoods. We also need to build more bridges between our poor neighbourhoods and the two excellent post-secondary institutions right in our midst: McMaster University and Mohawk College.  I’m pleased that they are both looking at how to improve access to post-secondary education for kids in Code Red neighbourhoods; work that I have had the opportunity to witness first-hand as part of the Mohawk Access Cabinet.

Building bridges will require steady commitment, a long-term focus on results and stronger partnerships between stakeholders to achieve shared goals.