Center Maryland: New study: there’s opportunity in middle-skill jobs

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on February 27, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Almost 36,000 new job hires for key middle-skill occupations are expected in the Baltimore region by 2020, according to a new study gauging occupational training opportunities in the region.

Emerging middle-skill jobs, coupled with effective workforce training strategies, could take a significant bite out of the region’s current unemployment level of 105,000 workers and offer existing low-wage workers with less than a four-year college degree an opportunity to move into jobs that pay a living wage.

That’s among the findings of a regional talent pipeline study by the Opportunity Collaborative, a sustainable development coalition of government agencies and nonprofits that includes the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Among other things, the study also confirms the contrasting workforce demographics of a region where, at the same time, more than a third of its residents have four-year college degrees or higher and one third is comprised of individuals whose education level is a high school diploma or less.

The Baltimore region’s workforce is one of the highest educated in the country, but a significant segment of this workforce falls into the category of lower-skilled workers, Michael B. Kelly, executive director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, said in presenting the study findings recently to Greater Baltimore Committee board members.

The Opportunity Collaborative, staffed by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, began a two-year process in 2013 to coordinate the region’s housing, workforce development and transportation plans with a specific focus on reducing economic disparities. The effort is funded by a $3.5 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The talent pipeline study identified six industry sectors in the region that offer the best job access for middle-skill workers, Kelly said. The sectors are healthcare, construction, information technology, transportation and logistics, business services and manufacturing.

The study identified 39 middle-skill occupations in the six sectors on which job trainers need to focus. For example, occupations identified include:

  • medical assistants and dental hygienists in the health care industry;
  • electricians, plumbers, pipefitters and carpenters in the construction industry;
  • computer support specialists and information security analysts in the cyber security industry;
  • truck and tractor trailer drivers, mechanics and cargo agents in the transportation and logistics industry;
  • electronics technicians, tax preparers and human resources assistants in the business services industry; and
  • engineering technicians, mechanical drafters and computer systems analysts in the manufacturing industry.

“Part of what we’re trying to say is that we need to do a better job of connecting our residents to these jobs,” Kelly said. Hopefully, workforce development strategists, job training task forces and community colleges in the region are using the list of 39 jobs “to rethink the jobs we’re training for,” he added.

“The idea is that if we can get people the skills they need and cross-cutting skills to fill these jobs, it’s going to be an economic driver for those who traditionally live at or near the poverty line in the region,” Kelly said.

The study also examined barriers to employment opportunity related to education and skills, transportation, industries, social factors and others. Researchers interviewed more than 1,100 job seekers around the region and found that 82 percent of job seekers face three or more barriers.

Top barriers identified by the study include jobs that don’t cover the cost of living, high cost of education and training, lack of a driver’s license, and new skills needed.

Among recommendations of the talent pipeline study is that the workforce development system focus more on “pathways” to careers in key industry sectors. Strategies for overcoming or mitigating barriers to middle-skill employment also need to be developed. These recommendations merit close attention in the Baltimore region’s workforce development community.

Employment experts are making it clear that there is a large and growing market for middle-skill jobs. Availability of such jobs will be driven by retiring “baby boomers” as well as job growth in the key industries identified in the Opportunity Collaborative study.

Strategies to maintain and attract middle-skill employers to the region and to improve worker preparedness for middle-skill occupations are critically important to growing our region’s economy and strengthening its competitiveness for business location and job growth.

There are few fundamentals more essential to a competitive business climate than an adaptive and quality workforce.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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