Group pushes for more job training

October 17, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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A new study released in several states last week by The Workforce Alliance and its national Skills2Compete campaign states that Michigan and other states will need to invest more in preparing workers for "middle-skill" jobs — those requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree.

Andrea Ray of The Workforce Alliance said “economic downtime in Michigan must be used to invest in training time.”

“If Michigan seeks real economic recovery and long-term prosperity, we must ensure our work force has the necessary education and training to meet the labor demands of the future," said Ray. "The recession provides a time frame for businesses and the state to be opportunistic: evaluate labor and skill needs and train and prepare for the jobs that are expected to grow.”

Andy Levin, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, said the report, "Michigan’s Forgotten Middle-Skill Jobs," points to the need for continuing the No Worker Left Behind program, which helps workers acquire the skills that will be necessary for the most plentiful jobs as the Michigan economy diversifies.

The report states that "conventional wisdom" recognizes only highly skilled jobs and low-skilled jobs, ignoring middle-skill jobs, which "currently make up the largest segment of jobs in the U.S. economy and will continue to do so for years to come."

The Workplace Alliance used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to calculate that out of the 4,142,750 jobs in Michigan in 2008, 29.7 percent were high-skill, 51 percent were middle-skill and 19.3 percent were low-skill.

By 2016, according to the report, there will be a total of 5,036,512 jobs in Michigan. More than 2.4 million of them will be middle-skill jobs, or about 48 percent. Low-skill jobs will make up about 20.7 percent of the total.

High-skill jobs are defined as management, business/financial, professional and professional-related. Middle-skill includes sales and sales-related, office and administrative support, construction, installation and repair, production, transportation and material moving. Low-skill jobs are the service jobs, plus farming, fishing and forestry.

The report states that local communities and the state rely on middle-skill jobs such as police officers, firefighters, medical technicians and therapists, air traffic controllers, electricians and mechanics.

The report asserts that "shortages in the growing 'green' sector are already occurring. Michigan employers already are having trouble filling middle-skill jobs in energy auditing, lead/hazardous materials work, photovoltaic installation and trucking."

A news release accompanying the report quotes Fred Keller of Cascade Engineering as saying that "finding good people who want to work at Cascade Engineering is not the problem. However, finding enough highly skilled people at all levels throughout West Michigan continues to be a problem for the manufacturing sector in West Michigan.”

Kenyatta Brame, chief administrative officer at Cascade Engineering, said the difference between a high school diploma and a four-year degree is "a big gap for us at Cascade." He said a typical machine operator doesn't necessarily even need a high school diploma, while a middle-skills-level person would be someone who requires special maintenance skills for keeping large injection-molding presses operating properly.

"At Cascade, we like to grow our own," he said, meaning the company will train low-skill individuals who can then move up into the middle-skill positions. The training may include classroom work in addition to working with an experienced worker.

Stimulus funds are predicted to increase the demand for middle-skill level workers.

As federal economic recovery funds are invested, a large share of the jobs created will be middle-skill jobs such as building and repairing roads, manufacturing renewable energy products and caring for our aging population, according to the report. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's, projects that by the fourth quarter of 2012, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will increase employment in several industries dominated by middle-skill jobs, including construction, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing.

"Despite these numbers, policymakers at both the federal and state levels have increasingly focused on college and university education, without proportionate attention to middle-skill jobs, and the education and training investments needed to ensure that workers have the skills they need to succeed in these vital occupations," states the report.

“There is a federal call to action that must not be ignored: All Americans should obtain some form of postsecondary education or job training — and that call has been backed up with commitments to invest in community colleges and other middle-skill training opportunities,” notes Andrew Brower of The Source in Grand Rapids.

The Source is a not-for-profit employee support organization designed to help employees keep their jobs, receive training to enhance their employment and help employees move into better jobs. It uses the resources of the government, area nonprofits and private employers.

The Workforce Alliance is a national coalition of community-based training organizations, community colleges, unions, business leaders, local officials and leading technical assistance and research organizations.

According to The Workforce Alliance report, the Skills2Compete-Michigan campaign is calling on state leaders to embrace a new vision to guide its economic and education strategy that would allow residents to meet or exceed President Obama’s challenge: Every American should have access to the equivalent of at least two years of education or training past high school. That training/education could lead to a vocational credential, industry certification, or simply be an individual's first two years of college. The point made by the alliance is that the post-high school training/education should be available to everyone "at whatever point and pace makes sense for individual workers and industries."

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