Center Maryland: For Baltimore a silver lining may be found in the middle of STEM jobs

Don Fry headshot - July 2015

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on January 8, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

Anyone with a high school or college-age child knows there is a big push to provide courses and hands-on classroom exposure in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known collectively as STEM.

The reason is simple: High-paying jobs tied to those fields, such as engineers, software developers, and healthcare practitioners are booming and are expected to grow even more as technology impacts a host of industries from medicine to cybersecurity. Many of these good jobs require a bachelor’s or even post-graduate degree.

But what some might not recognize is that many industry sectors also have STEM-related jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

A report issued this week by the Associated Black Charities and Greater Baltimore Committee found that these so-called “middle-skill” STEM jobs, such as lab technicians and information technology support technicians are becoming increasingly plentiful in the Baltimore region and workers needed to fill them are in high-demand.

STEM Study 2_v8_Page_01Further, the report, STEM: Middle-Skill Career Pathways in the Baltimore Region, notes that these middle-skill STEM jobs pay higher hourly wages than traditional entry-level positions within the industry sector.

For example, a person employed in an entry-level position, such as a laundry worker or dietary aide, in a healthcare setting would likely earn $8 to $14 an hour, the report found. But if that same person could secure a middle-skill STEM job such as a lab or medical records technician, their hourly wages would be $10 to $16 or even higher.

Another big plus: opportunities for career advancement and even higher wage earnings in middle-skill STEM jobs are much stronger than in the traditional entry-level positions.

Indeed many entry middle-skill STEM jobs have clear pathways along a career ladder with increased responsibility and stronger earnings. In short, middle-skill STEM jobs open a door to career – they are not just a job opportunity.

All this should be of particular interest in the Baltimore area, where many who are seeking jobs  face a number of challenges finding and keeping sustainable careers, much less employment  that pays a living wage.

The average wage for middle-skill STEM workers in the region is $58,504. That is 61 percent higher than the average wage for someone with a similar educational background working in a non-STEM job.

This isn’t to say middle-skill STEM jobs are the magic elixir to Baltimore’s challenges addressing economic disparities. But it may not be stretch to think of it as a silver lining, if fully leveraged.

According to a 2013 study by the Brookings Institute, there are an estimated 122,000 middle-skill STEM jobs in the Baltimore region. That’s 43 percent of the estimated 281,000 total STEM-related jobs in the region.

As you might expect, in Baltimore, the largest number of these middle-skill STEM jobs (about 31,000) are found  in healthcare. But strong demand can also be found in other prominent industry sectors in the Baltimore region, specifically energy, manufacturing, technology, design and construction, and bioscience.

Some refer to this fast-emerging middle-skill STEM job base as the ‘hidden economy’ because it hasn’t received a lot of media or public attention.

But it’s a sizeable and growing job base and provides a terrific opportunity for the regional business community to tap chronically unemployed, low-skilled workers who find it difficult to find jobs that pay a living wage – $52,998 in Baltimore.

For companies that have developed middle-skill STEM training programs or are working with nonprofit workforce development organizations to employ such candidates within their employment ranks, this isn’t about taking on charity cases. Nor should it be.

These businesses are finding strong value in such employees, including company loyalty, worker retention, productivity, and ambition to learn new skills for advancement.

Here’s a case in point: Candice King was a single mother and homeless in Baltimore.

Fortunately, she found her way into a training program at the BioTechnical Institute (BTI) of Maryland. The nonprofit BTI provides tuition-free training in basic laboratory skills to unemployed and under-employed Maryland residents who show ambition and promise.

King graduated in the top 10 percent of her class, went on to complete an internship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and then landed a job as an animal care technician at the institution. She was warmly welcomed on the very first day on the job.

This middle-skill STEM job has put Ms. King on solid ground and, as she told a captivated audience of 150 people earlier this week at the event to unveil the STEM report, she is still amazed that she works at one of the world’s best known medical institutions.

Instead of looking at a dead end, she’s looking toward a promising future. She sees opportunities for career advancement while making lasting contributions to Johns Hopkins and co-workers.

As this example highlights, there’s a clear benefit in providing the needed training to someone like Candice King, who may have initially lacked STEM-related skills, but who is driven, dedicated, and willing to put in the needed work and training to become certified.

Such employees are invaluable in any workplace.

As the STEM report notes, the Baltimore region has a number of challenges to leverage this booming middle-skill job base to its full potential for residents and the economy.

But the area also has some solid pieces in place that need to be broadened or better promoted to expand the number of youth with poor job prospects that get into middle-skill STEM jobs.

Chris Seals, a consultant who worked on the STEM report,  said that during the past several years a number of industry sectors in the Baltimore region, specifically advanced manufacturing and healthcare, have developed programs, or  “ramps,” to identify job candidates and work with them to develop the required skills, training or certifications needed to move them into jobs.

Other sectors lag in this regard, Seals notes. But they could develop their own programs by modeling them on the industry sectors that have addressed this challenge.

Baltimore has a number of very good middle-skill STEM training efforts underway at workplace development organizations such as BTI, he notes. But the need is great and capacity at these organizations is limited. By bringing more industry sector or employer involvement to workplace development efforts, the region could build on the success and expertise of these successful efforts.

Another key challenge  is the need  to increase awareness to area companies that are in need of such workers that they will see strong benefits by providing STEM training and gateways to workers who lack required education or skills but have the drive, dedication and work ethic of a Candice King.

As King and Johns Hopkins can tell you, the return on the investment for both employer and employee can be very strong indeed. It’s a “win-win” for them and for the Baltimore region.

Read the STEM report here.

Don Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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