What are we doing to give Massachusetts residents the skills to compete?

Today, 45 percent of jobs in Massachusetts are “middle-skilled,” requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four year degree. What are we doing to ensure our labor force has the skills to be successful in these jobs?

It’s an election year and jobs are on every candidate’s agenda. In Washington, a national jobs bill is being debated.

Here in Massachusetts, the governor and Legislative leadership are proposing new jobs bills as well.

We hear about “green” jobs and the growing job sectors in health care, education and business services. But, what we don’t hear enough about is how to make sure we have a workforce, trained and ready to take these jobs on.

Today, 45 percent of jobs in Massachusetts are “middle-skilled,” requiring more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree. We must ensure that our labor force has the skills to be successful in these jobs.

Employers in our major industries often indicate that it’s difficult to find people who are well-prepared to work in their sectors even in the midst of a recession. Developing strategies to address our middle skills deficiency is critical to our state’s economic growth.

That’s why SkillWorks has made addressing the middle skills crisis a priority. SkillWorks is a 10-year, $25 million investment partnership to improve workforce development in Boston and in the commonwealth. Working with foundations, government, community organizations and employers, SkillWorks is investing in training programs; preparing people for and connecting them to postsecondary education; supporting public policy efforts to create better pathways to post-secondary training; and prioritizing its efforts in growing sectors in our state’s economy.

During the initiative’s first five years, SkillWorks’ Partnerships provided training for more than 3,000 people: of which 1,100 received wage increases, more than 600 found new employment in target sector jobs, and more than 200 were promoted. 

More than 30 local employers participated in this effort, with many of them increasing their own investments in workforce development. Working with state policymakers, Skillworks has also been able to leverage new public resources through the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund, now a national model for sector based job training.

From SkillWorks’ experience, a major barrier to advancement for many workers is the lack of a postsecondary credential or certificate, and it’s not because people are not trying. A recently released report by the national Demos Think Tank found that almost 40 percent of those who enroll in occupational certificate programs fail to earn a credential of any type within six years.

We know that at least two major obstacles contribute to this problem. First, many students lack essential academic preparation for postsecondary study, and they end up wasting valuable time and money in remedial education classes that can take years to complete. 

If they can overcome this barrier, many adults face an additional hurdle of working to finance their education and living expenses while trying to keep up with their studies part time.

These part-time adult students have very few financial aid options. If they succeed, the gains are substantial: those who are awarded certificates earn median annual salaries 27 percent greater than those who leave school with no postsecondary credential. And the salaries earned by those with community college certificates in engineering and health care are close to what bachelor’s degree-holders in the social or natural sciences earn.

SkillWorks is partnering with Jewish Vocational Service and area health-care employers (including Marina Bay Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center) to tackle these challenges head on. Over the next three years, more than 200 of their employees will participate in college preparation with extensive coaching, support and tuition assistance. More than 50 employees are currently on track to receive health-care certificates and degrees, and 10 already have.

As state policymakers seek to get unemployed workers back to work and provide opportunities for employers to grow their workforce, they need to focus on helping more workers attain postsecondary credentials. This work should include creating better bridges to postsecondary education; more financial aid options for part-time students; and a stronger community college system.

The benefits of one- and two-year credential programs are immediate and profound for both individual workers and our state’s economy. Our state’s economic growth depends on a workforce that’s trained and ready for 21st-century jobs.

This OpEd was published in the Allston-Brighton TAB on March 31, 2010 and was co-authored by Loh-Sze Leung and Jerry Rubin.