Michael Kelly: A Collaborative Effort to Close the Mid-Skills Job Gap

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By: Michael Kelly

Three years ago the Opportunity Collaborative, a consortium of government and non-government stakeholders in the Baltimore region, began work on a series of regional plans and strategies designed to better connect residents to the social and economic strengths that make Central Maryland such a great place to live.  Funded through a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Opportunity Collaborative, which is co-chaired by Bill Cole of the Baltimore Development Corporation and Scot Spencer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is identifying connections between housing, transportation, and workforce development policy that will have a meaningful impact on the lives of everyone in the region.

Tomorrow, March 24, before a joint briefing of the Baltimore region’s legislative delegations in Annapolis, the Collaborative will release the Baltimore area’s first regional workforce development plan.  This plan, Strong Workforce, Strong Economy, is the collective effort of our local workforce investment agencies, nonprofits, local philanthropy, advocates, community colleges and state agencies. Our partners developed this plan with two major understandings: (1) there is no better investment than investing in people; and (2) the barriers job seekers face do not stop at jurisdictional lines.

Our region boasts a highly-skilled workforce, median incomes significantly higher than the national average, and strategic assets including strong anchor institutions, military installations and the Port of Baltimore. Despite these economic advantages, we are not immune to the national challenges of an ever shrinking middle class, expanding income disparities and increasing suburban poverty.  Our economy has changed.  Cyber security firms and bio-tech parks replaced our steel mills and chemical plants, and with these changes came a new definition of what a skilled workforce looks like.   Together, we must get serious about creating and supporting mid-skill career paths towards family-wage jobs that will ensure our region’s middle class is not left behind in today’s economy.

The majority of jobs in the Baltimore region fall into two main categories: (1) low-skilled jobs with low pay and limited advancement opportunities; and (2) high-skilled jobs that offer high pay and opportunities to advance. There are too few mid-skilled jobs and too few effective pathways to help workers move into these positions. These mid-skilled jobs require more than a high school education, but less than a four-year college degree. In the thriving Baltimore region of the mid-twentieth century, these jobs were the backbone of the middle class.

A recent report of the Augustine Commission highlights the importance of mid-skill jobs, noting that, “arguably, no factor is more important to a successful economy than its workforce.  A workforce composed of people with diverse skill sets and education levels is critical if a business is to succeed in today’s highly competitive, innovation-based marketplace.”  The report goes on to state that, “elements of the state’s workforce are highly educated, yet all state workers are not well-matched to available positions.”  This mismatch is, in large part, the mid-skills training gap.  Mid-skill jobs provide family- supporting wages and career stability.   For adult learners with neither the time nor wealth to earn a four-year degree, these mid-skill jobs are an attainable solution. 

Of the 13 largest industry sectors in the region, healthcare has the highest percentage of mid-skill jobs at 38 percent.  The percentage of mid-skill jobs in critical industries like Information Technology, bioscience, construction and business services all hover around 12 percent.  While this job share may appear to be low, there is an opportunity to make a meaningful dent in our region’s wage disparity by preparing workers within our region to fill the projected openings in these mid-skill positions.  The Opportunity Collaborative’s workforce efforts identify six critical industries for mid-skill job seekers in our region; healthcare/bioscience, construction, IT/cyber security, transportation and logistics, business services, and manufacturing. 

There are at least 39 specific occupations in demand by employers in these sectors that we know offer a family-supporting wage. These occupations include positions as medical technicians, registered nurses, electricians, HVAC installers, computer systems analysts and diesel engine specialists.  Overall projected hires in these industries outpace our unemployment numbers, but a more interesting figure is the projected growth in these 39 occupations.  The combined hiring for these 39 mid-skilled occupations is expected to account for more than 35,800 job hires (from both new jobs and turnover) in the region by 2020.  That number could support employment for approximately 40 percent of the unemployed adults in the Baltimore Region.  These are the jobs for which our underemployed and unemployed need to be trained.

Training and retraining our workforce to fill these twentieth-century occupations will require an informed, strategic and cooperative approach that includes community colleges, the K-12 education system, state and local workforce investment boards, nonprofit programs, philanthropy and, most importantly, our employers. We need an increased focus on credentialing, investment in career pathways, and a commitment to workforce investment at the K-12 level.   

In addition to training, many of our job seekers need support to overcome a web of employment barriers.   We learned just how complicated this web of barriers is in a recent Opportunity Collaborative survey of more than a thousand job seekers in the Baltimore metropolitan area.  In the survey, respondents were asked to identify any of 23 barriers that affected their search for a job.  More than 60 percent of the respondents said that they could not find a job to cover the basic costs of living, an indication of both the dearth of mid-skill jobs, and the skills gap in our region.  Additional evidence of this skills gap provided by the survey included 47 percent of respondents who said the cost of training/education was too high and 40 percent who indicated a need for new skills.  Among the most stark responses were the 22 percent of job seekers who listed a criminal record as a barrier.  For these job seekers, their prior criminal record is an absolute barrier to almost every family-supporting career. 

Compounding these individual barriers was the way they can work in concert.  More than 80 percent of our respondents listed three or more barriers on the survey.  An astounding 55 percent of the survey-takers listed six or more barriers.  For these job seekers, training may not be enough; case management, wrap around services, and outside support and other holistic solutions are a necessity.  While these services require a significant investment of public time and money, the alternative of leaving families at or near the poverty line is ultimately a greater cost.  The Opportunity Collaborative’s plan lays out a series of strategies to modernize our approach to job readiness as well as to help job seekers overcome significant barriers.  As we look toward our release event tomorrow in Annapolis, three recent pieces of legislation align themselves well with our recommendations. 

Legislation submitted by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (SB742/HB942) to create an apprenticeship pilot program at Maryland high schools puts the recommendations of the Augustine Commission into action.   Apprenticeships are a proven and effective pathway for mid-skill workers to train for and enter sustainable and family-supporting careers while simultaneously earning a living.  At a breakfast hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee last week, United States Labor Secretary Thomas Perez called apprenticeships “the other college, but without all the debt.”

Governor Larry Hogan’s continued support of Maryland’s nationally recognized Employment Advancement Right Now (EARN) program demonstrates the bipartisan nature of these issues.  EARN not only invites employers along for the ride – it puts them in the driver’s seat by allowing them to customize training programs to meet their specific needs.  From a job seeker’s perspective, participation in an EARN training program is a near guarantee that the skills they are gaining will be immediately marketable.  EARN, and other industry-led training programs, remove the guesswork on the part of trainers and learners, and creates direct onramps to committed employers. 

Finally, the Maryland Second Chance Act of 2015 (SB526) presents a reasoned approach to a challenging issue. For Marylanders convicted of a single non-domestic offense and who have repaid society through a sentence, probation, and/or fine, that conviction no longer needs to be an absolute barrier to employment.  Shielding that single non-violent offense from their criminal record and employment applications allows past offenders to be productive members of society and drastically reduces the chance of recidivism among this population The Senate unanimously passed this bill recently with a vote of 46-0 and Governor Hogan has said he will sign the legislation. 

Our region’s residents are hungry for a pragmatic and accessible approach to job training and education. One that is grounded in the community around them, built on the region’s strengths, supported by our anchor institutions, and guided by businesses with growing workforce needs. Most importantly, they need the skills necessary to successfully travel along the pathways of opportunity that lead to mid-skill jobs that can lift their families out of poverty and create a stronger, more vibrant regional economy.  As our partners in the Opportunity Collaborative move forward with the implementation of the Baltimore Regional Workforce Development Plan, we look forward to working with our state partners in agencies and the legislature to better connect all our residents and families to opportunities in the Baltimore region.   


About Michael B. Kelly

Michael Kelly is the Executive Director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council (BMC), the council of governments serving the Baltimore region.  Prior to this appointment, Mike served as BMC’s general counsel and coordinator of government relations.  Since 2011, Mike has also been the director of the Opportunity Collaborative.  Mike is a graduate of Loyola University and the University of Baltimore School of Law.



Mike will be appearing on the Midday with Dan Rodricks from 1:00 - 2:00 this afternoon to discuss workforce development in the Baltimore region. Tune in on WYPR 88.1 FM.
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