Donald Fry -- Employers: a ‘middle’ skills job does not mean ‘diminished’ skills

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By: Donald C. Fry 

The term “middle skills” is being used these days to describe a wide range of jobs that do not require college degrees but offer attractive career paths to young people with high school diplomas or high school diplomas with additional skills training.

But while employers use the term for thousands of jobs they need to fill now and in the future that do not require a higher level of academic attainment, these jobs nevertheless require workers who, regardless of education level, possess fundamental academic skills – especially in math and reading.

Employers make it clear that the term “middle” skills does not imply “diminished” skills.

Managers hiring for all levels of non-degree jobs these days are seeking prospects that emerge from high school, community college or certification programs with strong abilities to read and understand the printed word and who possess a good grasp of basic math.

Employers are also seeking prospects with some tech and computer skills, customer-service skills and a clean background devoid of criminal convictions.

These essential requirements were underscored in a report released this week by the Opportunity Collaborative, a coalition of government agencies and nonprofits – including the Greater Baltimore Committee – dedicated to crafting a regional plan for sustainable development.

The report focused on middle-skill job opportunities in the Baltimore region’s transportation, logistics and warehouse sector, which currently employs 32,000 workers and is expected to grow by at least 1,800 workers by 2020. The report identified five career fields – warehouse operations, drivers, mechanics, marine operations and transportation logistics – where entry level jobs can ultimately lead to family-supporting annual salary levels between $50,000 and $135,000.

Basic skills in math and reading are prerequisites for the overwhelming majority of these jobs. More than half also require some technology and computer skills, as well as customer-service skills, according to the report.

Here’s the catch for prospective employees – 100 percent of the 55 middle-skill jobs detailed in the Opportunity Collaborative report require a criminal background check, which is a “major barrier” to anyone seeking a career in the transportation, logistics and warehouse sector, the report’s authors write.

That’s because workers in this sector are often required to have the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, for which most prospects with a felony conviction are disqualified.

This report ratifies what employers seeking “middle skills” workers throughout the region have been saying about two key issues – education and personal character.

For educators, it’s critically important that, above all, graduates of public high schools have mastered basic math and reading skills.  Maryland still has work to do in this regard, say employers.  And the data bear this out.

Fifty-four percent of recent graduates from Maryland high schools who enroll at community colleges and four-year colleges need remedial education in either math or English, according to the most recent data from the Maryland Higher Education Commission.  Our public school systems must do better.

For young people, the message from employers is two-fold.  First, don’t short-change your educational opportunities.  Take it upon yourselves to master basic math, reading and writing skills in high school, no excuses.  You will absolutely need these skills in the workforce.  And your employers will need your talent, whether or not you go to college.

Second, remember that your conduct – even at a young age – can have consequences that impact your earning ability or limit your employment opportunities. 

Employment experts are making it clear that there is a large and growing market for middle-skill jobs.  Experts have projected that tens of thousands of job vacancies in Maryland during the coming decade will be for occupations that require education levels of at least a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree.

Availability of such jobs will be driven by retiring “baby boomers” and emerging so-called “new middle” occupations in health care, information technology, technical professions, manufacturing, construction and retail trades, experts report.

Clearly, there will be an abundance of occupational opportunities for middle-skills workers as well as for college grads, but the basic abilities of prospects for all jobs must measure up to the needs of employers.

Leaders in the education and business sectors need to ensure that basic education meets employer requirements and that opportunities to train for middle-skills jobs are readily available.

A business is only as good as the collective skills of its workers.  And a good business climate is only as good as the quality of its workforce.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.