The Daily Record: A ‘hidden economy’ in Baltimore

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on January 15, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

Many who live and work in the Baltimore area may not be aware of this, but the Baltimore area ranks in the top metro areas of the country for the share of jobs tied to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known collectively as STEM.

With more than 23 percent of the total jobs in the region tied to STEM – about 281,000 jobs total – Baltimore ranks No. 8 out of the top 100 metro areas in the U.S., according to a Brookings Institute study.

This fact alone is very good news for the region.

For one, STEM-related jobs typically pay higher wages than non-STEM related jobs. And two, workers in STEM-related jobs “play a direct role in the invention, creation and maintenance of technologies that drive economic growth,” notes Brookings in its 2013 report “The Hidden STEM Economy.”

Many of the top paying STEM jobs require college diplomas and even advanced degrees. But not all do. In fact, a growing number of STEM positions — called “middle skill” STEM jobs — require only an associate degree or proper certification coupled with some type of job experience. Lacking either of these, job candidates need specialized training in a workforce development or company-sponsored program.

Where opportunities are

These middle skill STEM jobs are where the real “Hidden Economy” lies in the Baltimore area. It is rich with possibilities and opportunities for the region’s workforce, a report issued recently by the Associated Black Charities and Greater Baltimore Committee found.

The report, STEM: Middle-Skill Career Pathways in the Baltimore Region, notes there are a number of big advantages for the Baltimore area for this booming sector of the economy.

First, these middle-skill STEM jobs pay higher wages than traditional entry-level positions. In fact, Brookings found in its study that STEM jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree or higher pay 10-percent more than jobs with similar education requirements.

The average wage for middle-skill STEM workers in the Baltimore 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.

And then there is this: Opportunities for career advancement and even higher wage earnings in middle-skill STEM jobs are much stronger than in the traditional entry-level positions. Many entry middle-skill STEM jobs have clear pathways on a career ladder with increased responsibility and strong earnings, the Associated Black Charities and Greater Baltimore Committee report found. In short, middle-skill STEM jobs can lead to a career.

A boon for Baltimore

All of 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 family supporting wage.

This isn’t to say middle-skill STEM jobs are the magic elixir to Baltimore’s economic disparities. But this “hidden economy” offers strong potential, and so it needs the recognition and support by the public and private sectors it deserves so it can be fully leveraged.

According to Brookings, 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. And STEM jobs are expected to grow in the region for the foreseeable future.

In Baltimore, the largest number of these middle skill STEM jobs can be found in the health care sector – about 31,000. That’s not surprising, given anchor institutions like Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Baltimore and their associated research parks.

But strong demand for workers in these middle skill STEM fields can be found in other key industry sectors in the Baltimore region, specifically energy, advanced manufacturing, information technology, design and construction, and bioscience.

As experts told an audience of 150 people attending a January  6 event to unveil the STEM report, employers are finding strong value in employees who come on board after successfully going through middle-skill STEM training programs provided by the company or a workforce development organization.

Company loyalty, worker retention, productivity, and ambition to learn new skills for advancement are just some of the bonuses companies are seeing in graduates of these training programs.

Candice King is among those who have benefited from such programs. A single mother and once homeless in Baltimore, she was fortunate to find her way into a training program at the BioTechnical Institute (BTI) of Maryland. BTI provides tuition-free training in basic laboratory skills to unemployed and under-employed Maryland residents who show 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 King on solid ground and, as she told the audience at the STEM report event, she is amazed that she works at one of the world’s best known medical institutions. She is committed to learning even more new skills so she can advance.

Such employees are invaluable in any workplace.

What needs to happen

As the STEM report notes, the Baltimore region has some work to do to leverage this booming middle-skill job base to its full potential for more residents like King — and the economy as a whole.

Among the areas that need to be addressed:

  • Expand and strengthen career pathways so low-skilled adults can move directly into middle-skill jobs in the IT and energy sectors.
  • Encourage middle skill workforce development programs to provide curriculum to ensure remedial math and reading for job candidates so they meet job opening requirements.
  • Address other barriers that low-skilled adults face to employment, such as affordable, reliable transportation to jobs, child-care, and training in such job readiness skills as reporting to work on time and communicating professionally with co-workers.
  • Broaden awareness in the region of the “value proposition” for employers to hire workers who previously were low-skilled but now have the proper training to be hired into middle skill STEM jobs. “Nationally, some of the most successful STEM workforce development programs are focusing increasingly on their value proposition to employers,” the report by Associated Black Charities and the Greater Baltimore Committee notes.

Addressing these and other challenges to fully leverage the growing middle skill job base in the region will require hard work and strong support and collaboration of the public and private sectors in the Baltimore area.

But it’s too good an opportunity to miss out on, and clearly seems to offer the proverbial “win-win” for those who want and need good paying jobs, employers and the regional economy.

Read the STEM report here.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to The Daily Record.

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