Thousands of Puerto Ricans coming to Orlando suddenly will have a definite impact on the economy and jobs market, economists and local officials said.
And the issue is not if they will come, but when — and how many.
While the impact might cause difficulty at first, and a higher unemployment rate, the end result might be economic expansion in Central Florida.
Already, local agencies such as CareerSource, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Valencia College are making contingency plans to deal with an large wave of new arrivals.
CareerSource is extending programs it launched for people who lost their jobs during Hurricane Irma, including Disaster Unemployment Assistance, said Pamela Nabors, president and CEO for CareerSource of Central Florida, a state agency.
The region and the U.S. are much better prepared to accept such an influx than it would have been during the Great Recession, she said.
“The good thing is we just recently returned to full employment, and now have an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent in this region,” Nabors said. “Health care is always growing; there are a lot of contact centers coming online, and construction needs workers too.”
At Valencia, administrators are planning for greater demand for English language classes, and for programs that teach basic job skills in manufacturing, electronics, heavy equipment and construction. The shortest program it offers is a five-week course that teaches basic construction skills.
A large percentage of Puerto Ricans speak English, but having the language skill to land a job is more difficult. Valencia has already been responding to an influx from Puerto Rico because of economic troubles there. Valencia’s Intensive English Program earned its national accreditation in 2010. It is now accredited through 2025.
That program is focused on rapidly teaching someone to speak English well enough to land a job, at 18 hours per week. Some people at the beginner level can complete it in about four months.
“Internally, we’ve had numerous conversations about how and when we’ll deal with this,” said Joe Battista, who is vice president for global, professional and continuing education. “I think everybody’s having that conversation, and they want to be prepared.”
As many as 250,000 people could leave Puerto Rico, said Frank López, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for metro Orlando.
“They won’t all come to Florida, but they have many family connections here and there’s been a huge influx already,” he said.
Many will probably choose Orlando, but others will go to Miami, New York, or Texas, economist Hank Fishkind said. And most of those who leave the island will probably be healthy people with some money, he said.
As for economic impact here, he sees parallels with the Mariel Boat Lift and its thousands of Cuban refugees in 1980 — though that originated when people were forcefully removed from their homeland, rather than a natural disaster on the heels of financial difficulty, and most landed in Miami. That city’s economy suffered a hit at first, but the refugees quickly found jobs or created them.
“It’s obvious that a lot of Puerto Ricans will come,” Fishkind said. “They’re dealing with a tremendous economic disruption there.”
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