Middle-Skills jobs are open; who is here to fill them?

Middle-skills jobs are in demand, but what can regional business leaders and legislators do to fill them? Harry Holzer from Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute shared his research with GBC’s Education and Workforce Committee January 24 concerning what sectors middle-skills jobs are in, what problems lie in the current landscape and solutions to guide the development of a better workforce.

Holzer said, despite observations to the contrary, “labor in the middle market is not disappearing.” He cites a “new middle” different from that of the previous generation, which sees employment opportunities in healthcare, IT, broadly-defined technicians, manufacturing, construction and high-end retail trade.

The recession has hit these areas, especially manufacturing and construction, Holzer said, but there are still jobs to be had. The problem is these sectors are seeing graduates — or worse yet non-graduates — who are increasingly not hirable in terms of possessing the skills needed to complete tasks in the available jobs.

Workforce systems have shrunk, Holzer said, and the ability to provide short-term training is limited. In addition, high schools are not offering the high-quality training programs or apprenticeships they used to offer kids who want to head directly into the workforce or into a trade rather than to college. Even more, there is a lack of career counseling and career preparation services to aid in smooth transitions into postsecondary education.

Holzer said getting education systems in better sync with legislators and regional businesses is one step moving forward as well as building “coherent education systems to correctly respond to market signals.” Restructuring to house career academies, forming a solid base of general, transferable education, filtering and improving learning-while-earning programs and restructuring remediation classes were all proposals Holzer felt needed to be taken into consideration in building a better model to prepare kids for middle-skills jobs.

But some companies, especially smaller ones, are reluctant to hire the people that would most benefit from this system, Holzer said, which would make it challenging to develop programs. He also said not every program works for everyone and demands shift over time. The systems created need to be nimble enough to be able to adapt to changes in the economic environment.

But Holzer and the rest of the committee focused in on a larger challenge no matter what system or program is developed to fix the problem — resources. Holzer stressed relying more on state and local funding and being prepared to rely on reduced funding to create programs.

While Holzer doesn’t know exactly what a system like that looks like, he realizes it has to be a learning-while-earning system for individuals who can’t afford to take a year off and go to school or work an unpaid internship. And the reality of the current landscape is it is a buyer’s market, according to Holzer, meaning if companies are reluctant to take these kinds of time-consuming training projects on, they can afford to do so in a not-so-desperate market.

Holzer said there have to be incentives, such as marginal tax cuts and economic development policies to ensure employer’s needs are met and there is value added to incentivize them to hire not-as-skilled people.

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