February 3, 2013

Employers need 'middle skills'

Paul Grasso, Just Sayin'

— I recently had the opportunity to sit on a panel at a New York State Economic Development Council conference. Melinda Mack, the executive director of the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals and Karen Springmeier, the executive director of the Finger Lakes Workforce Investment Board were also on the panel. 

They are two of the most knowledgeable and dedicated workforce professionals I know.

Our topic was “New York’s Middle Skills Gap: How Do We Meet the Challenge?”

A middle skill job is one that requires more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. In other words, some level of post-secondary education or training such as an associate’s degree, a vocational certificate, significant on-the-job-training or an apprenticeship. Jobs in advanced manufacturing and computer technology are a few examples of middle skill jobs as are emergency medical technicians and registered nurses.

The middle skills gap refers to gap between the skill levels currently existing in an organization compared to the skill levels it needs to achieve its goals. Without the proper mix of skills, an organization can neither grow nor remain competitive.

It’s an important topic when you consider that the United States Department of Labor (USDOL) predicts that nearly half of the new job openings in the next 10 years will be middle skill jobs. Unfortunately, high school students in New York face significant challenges in meeting the basic skill attainment needed for middle skill jobs, and the education projections don’t indicate that this will change in the short-term. When you realize that more than 50 percent of the jobs in New York require middle skills and fewer than 40 percent of the workforce have middle skills, you begin to understand why it’s an important topic.

Unbelievably, there are people who don’t believe there is such a thing as the middle skills gap. I think they’re the same people who believe the government is hiding aliens in Area 51 or that the 1969 moon landing really took place on a sound stage in Hollywood.

As the discussion continued, I began to wonder if the adage “there is no better investment than a college education” is still true. Think about it. Most recent college graduates are entering the job market with significant debt and weak job prospects. At the same time, a report, “New Directions for Community Colleges,” authored by Tony Carnavale, revealed that 22 percent of workers with an associate’s degrees earn more than the median wage of worker’s with a bachelor degree, and 14 percent earn more than the median wage of worker’s with a graduate degree.

Admittedly, the data could be somewhat skewed because of the recession, but The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data shows that 30 percent of flight attendants, 16 percent of bartenders and 13 percent of waitstaff are college graduates. Most likely all majored in English Literature, but nonetheless, they are underemployed.

More interesting is the fact that career and technical education programs have a higher completion rate (90 percent) than the national high school graduation rate (75 percent) or the national college graduation rate (60 percent).

So, what are the policy implications?

As many people will attest, I am not a fan of the Workforce Investment Act, and I think the skills gap is a symptom of the disease that is an inadequate and inefficient workforce development and education system. Which is not to criticize workforce development professionals or teachers; they do well considering the inadequate funding and antiquated rules with which they have to work.

Nonetheless, we need to close the skills gap in order to remain competitive and to give regional workers the opportunity to obtain family-sustaining wages. We need to re-evaluate our approach to training and create more efficient and effective ways of ensuring that workers have the skills employers need. To do so will mean travelling a bumpy road. It will require innovation, leadership and cooperation from businesses, educators, government and organized labor.

The North Country can distinguish itself by how it responds to this challenge locally and not necessarily relying on the federal government. Regions that make strategic investments and educational reforms designed to close the middle skills gap will be the regions that will experience business retention, expansion, business attraction and job growth.

Paul Grasso is the president & CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.