Donald Fry: Cultivating a future workforce that is bright, young and local

By Donald C. Fry

Employers in Maryland industry sectors such as healthcare, IT, technical services, manufacturing and sales, often complain that too many prospective employees today are “not hirable” for a number of reasons.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Maryland, according to the Pew Center for the States, which this week reported that elected leaders around the country are recognizing the nation’s 8.3 percent unemployment rate isn’t simply about too few jobs, it also relates to a workforce that may not be trained to fill the ones available.

This “structural unemployment” mismatch has put worker-training programs on the agendas of many states, Pew’s reported. Baltimore and Maryland are also entering a period when close attention needs to be paid to the specific nature of workforce development.

During the decade between 2008 and 2018, employment growth and retiring baby-boomers will create more than 900,000 job vacancies in Maryland. By then, 36 percent of jobs in our state will require either a bachelor’s or graduate degree, and almost 30 percent will be so-called “middle skills” jobs that require less than a four-year college degree but more than a high school education, studies show.

Young people are counseled these days to develop job interests, good work habits and to connect with potential employers as early as high school to get a feel for the private sector and to whet their interest in various professions.

Issues such as these have prompted Baltimore City – whose 23,000 public high school students constitute a sizeable future youthful and energetic talent pool if imaginatively guided – to launch an aggressive new “Hire One Youth” summer jobs program.

An initiative of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the program seeks to place motivated Baltimore City high school juniors and seniors into “real” summer jobs – not “gofer” positions – in the private sector.

The program is an outgrowth of the city’s annual “YouthWorks” summer jobs initiative, which private-sector employers have consistently supported with financial contributions but have placed a comparatively low number of youth in their own workplaces. Up until now, most YouthWorks student participants have been placed within government agencies.

The “Hire One Youth” initiative will feature an extensive screening process to select the most serious and prepared students for interviews with private-sector employers. Students will participate in a 12-hour job-readiness training program to become eligible for employer interviews.

Once a youth is interviewed and hired for a six-week job that pays $1,200 employers are asked to treat student workers the same as any other employee. “Hire One Youth” will provide each youth with a job coach who will monitor progress and help with any issues that develop.

Besides giving students invaluable on-the-job experience, the “Hire One Youth” program will enable students to gain important perspective about their education options after high school. Many will likely want to go on to college, particularly to pursue science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) subjects, which would make them highly-employable in tomorrow’s workforce.

Others may identify certificates and A.A. programs to enable them to acquire valuable insight into occupations they may enjoy. Graduates with some college or an associate’s degree are eligible for an increasing number of middle-skill jobs in sales and office support, as well as in information, computer and math sciences.

Employees with A.A. degrees in STEM subjects are 63 percent more likely to earn more than those with bachelor’s degrees in non-STEM subjects, according to Georgetown University studies. “It’s become less about the degree level, and a lot more about what you take,” Georgetown economist Anthony Carnevale recently told the Washington Post.

Private-sector summer jobs will help bright young people sift through the myriad of options in today’s changing workforce.

For their part, employers have an opportunity to handpick student talent and, potentially later, to hire someone they and their staffs already know and like.

For high school students, summer work experience can be pivotal, says Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. “The return on this investment that we’ve seen time and again is that a productive summer job can have a lasting effect on a young person’s life,” she said.

Private-sector employers should consider embracing the “Hire One Youth” initiative.

It makes sense to cultivate a future workforce that is bright, young and local.

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