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Job Training Shifts to 'Middle Skills' to Put Millennials Back to Work

middle-skill tech worker

Zoe Baldwin, field director for U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), recently had an odd social encounter that she believes has a lot to say about millennials and the plight they’ve been facing in the recent economy.

The 30-year-old Baldwin introduced herself to a 20-something woman who courteously asked what she did for a living. But before Baldwin could answer, the woman stammered an apology.

Bewildered, Baldwin asked what the apology was for. The answer: “Most millennials (those born between 1977 and 1992) don’t ask where someone works anymore,” because of fear of embarrassing them. They’re so used to their peers being unemployed, they no longer assume anyone their age has a job.

Indeed, unemployment has become an entrenched part of life for today’s 18-to-34-year-olds. Even as economic figures have rebounded somewhat since the Great Recession, millennials -- regardless of their education -- are discovering that the recovery doesn’t necessarily translate to more jobs for them.

For that reason, educators and employment experts are increasingly recommending a path around a bachelors degree. Instead, it takes high-schoolers and young job-seekers through targeted preparation for “middle-skill” jobs that require training but not necessarily college. The goal: one of approximately 50,000 unfilled New Jersey positions in a sector long-believed dead: manufacturing.

It’s Worse Than You Think

Remember the dot-com bust of 2001? According to a report issued by the Young Invincibles national advocacy group for millennials, employment levels for young people never returned to what they’d been before that. Then came the recession of 2008, and would-be workers aged 18-34 have suffered double-digit unemployment for six years straight.

With a quarter of young adult job losses hitting after the recession officially ended, the Opportunity Nation coalition of more than 250 nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, and faith-based and community organizations estimates that 5.8 million young adults nationally now neither work nor attend school. In New Jersey, 18.2 percent of the state's 16-24 year-olds were unemployed in 2012, according to the latest figures available from the Bureau of National Labor Statistics. (The definition of "unemployed" is limited to those actively seeking work, not those still in school.)

The individual and aggregate costs of this trend can be devastating. In the near term, those with short employment histories qualify for very little in the way of unemployment benefits and those who never entered the workforce qualify for nothing.

In the long term, there’s the blow to morale, the possible resort to black-market or criminal activity, and the reality, according to the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, that each currently unemployed American between 20 and 24 stands to earn $22,000 less in wages over the next decade than if the recession hadn’t occurred.

The entire taxpaying public pays for the damage. Young Invincibles calculates that unemployed 18-34-year-olds cost the federal and state governments a total of $8.9 billion in lost tax revenue, unemployment benefits, and welfare payments per year. New Jersey loses more than $50 million annually on these direct and missed opportunity costs, a statistic that places it seventh nationally.

Middle-Skill Workers

As some politicians, economists, and pundits lament the disappearance of the middleclass, a new catch-phrase is emerging that can offer hope to millions of young people who strive for a so-called “middle-class” job but don’t plan to attend a four-year college or university. The term in question is “middle skill” and in a 2009 report on the subject, the Brookings Institution described these jobs as ones that “generally require some education and training beyond high school but less than a bachelor’s degree.” Examples include police and firefighters, detectives, engineering technicians, electricians, plumbers, welders, and many healthcare support personnel such as dental hygienists, radiologic technicians, and respiratory therapists.

The report notes that some middle-skill positions saw their inflation-adjusted wages rise significantly more than the average American worker’s between 1997 and 2005, and while these types of professions lost a seven percent share of total employment from 1985 to 2006, they still make up half of all American jobs. What’s more, Brookings predicts that 45 percent of all job openings in the next decade will be in the “broad occupational categories that are mostly middle skill,” while one-third will come from high-skill occupational categories and less than one-quarter will fall into the low-skill (mostly service) occupations.

“Overall, we conclude that the demand for middle-skill workers will remain quite robust relative to its supply,” wrote the authors.

In New Jersey, demand and projections for middle-skill jobs reflect national trends. Calling middle-skill workers “the backbone of New Jersey’s economy,” the National Skills Coalition (NSC) found that while these positions account for 48 percent of the state’s supply, only 35 percent of the state’s workers have adequate training for them.

“Middle-skill jobs are key to our nation's health, its infrastructure, and its economic growth. Many of these jobs cannot be outsourced: from the care of our sick and elderly, to the repair of our computerized cars, to the running and maintenance of our factories' advanced machinery, to the construction of our nation's bridges and buildings,” wrote the NSC in a state-by-state report.

But while academics speak frequently about attracting students into the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields as a path to a well-paid, highly skilled career with longevity. Few people discuss the reality that half of all STEM jobs don’t require a college degree. According to the NSC, STEM careers in nursing and carpentry pay more than $11,000 annually over the state average for all occupations, though it should be noted that an increasing number of hospitals nationwide require their nurses to obtain a four-year degree.

With the National Center for Education Statistics reporting that average tuition at a public four-year college climbed by more than 250 percent over the past three decades and the average borrower graduates with nearly $30,000 in debt, fewer high school students can go to college, even if they want to.

Manufacturing Jobs: Not All Lost Overseas

“For the last 40 years we’ve been hearing lies that manufacturing is dead and gone,” said John Kennedy, CEO of the nonprofit New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP). “We’re very active.”

According to the United Nations, the U.S. remains the second-largest manufacturing country in the world.

And he doesn’t just say that because of where he works. Almost anyone who follows employment trends will say manufacturing is not only active in New Jersey, it’s in critical need of employees to keep it going. According to some estimates, 50,000 New Jersey manufacturing jobs remain unfilled; across the country, it’s closer to 500,000.

Kennedy and his peers in the business and training community say most of these manufacturing companies are small -- 50 employees or fewer -- and that in New Jersey they tend toward production of chemicals (mainly fragrances), foodstuffs, specialty plastics, and metal parts.

So why can’t this sector find people to hire?

The problem is that many small manufacturing businesses lack sophisticated outreach efforts, leading to the bigger issue that job-seekers don’t realize they’re there. “People aren’t going into the industry because they’ve been told for 40 years that there are no jobs,” said Kennedy. “Plus, people think these jobs are for the guy standing in front of a dirty machine.”

The misperception ignores all the technical, digital, sales, service, supply-chain, managerial, and front-office duties that need trained minds to perform them. And small companies don’t have the capacity to provide needed training themselves.

Beginning this summer, the NJMEP will directly connect 18-22-year-old job-seekers with open manufacturing positions through its free state-wide program, “Experience Manufacturing.” In order to introduce prospective employees to the manufacturing field, staff members will match job applicants with participating firms in need of that applicant’s experience and skill set. It’s then up to the company to determine whether or not to hire that applicant.

It’s one way to get around the fact that because the public still believes that more education equals more job opportunity, ambitious parents tend to steer their kids toward university instead of an associate’s degree or certificate program that might provide more practical – and employable -- skills.

“The wage differential between high school and college graduates is half-a-million dollars over a lifetime, so there’s still reason to go to college,” said New Jersey Institute of Technology Executive Director of Career Development Services Greg Mass. “But there has to be a greater connection between education and its purpose. Whether it’s at the college or high-school level, much work needs to be done in ensuring students possess the skills that are in demand in today’s highly technological workplace.”

The Apprentice

“The goal is to have youth come out of school prepared for the jobs that exist,” said Baldwin, echoing a refrain spoken by almost everyone who works in youth-skills training. Baldwin’s involved because last month her boss (Booker) introduced a bipartisan (U.S.) Senate bill that would expand the use of apprenticeships by extending a new federal tax credit to participating employers.

According to information distributed by his office, only 0.2 percent of the American workforce participates in 21,000 registered apprenticeships, most of which are run by the Department of Labor (DOL) or local trade unions. A modern apprenticeship registered by the DOL gives an apprentice a paid, short-term, supervised job at a participating company; at the end of the term, the apprentice receives a national credential that certifies his or her proficiency.

Saying that “Benefits of the registered apprenticeship . . . include incremental wage increases, improved skills, career advancement, enhanced retention, and increased productivity,” Booker’s staff prepared a bill that would give companies a $1,500 tax credit for hiring each apprentice younger than 25 (the credit for older apprentices is $1,000). The credit would be offset by savings realized from a provision that bars the federal government from printing publications that are otherwise available online, with exceptions for certain populations.

Booker’s office reports $240,000 greater career earnings for registered apprentices who receive their certification. Young Invincibles found that registered apprenticeships generate $50 in government revenue for every federal dollar invested and that every dollar invested in an apprentice returns $1.40 to the employer.

Plus, the experience alone may prove priceless.

“We can’t emphasize enough the importance of students gaining job skills through summer internships, research or cooperative programs. Anything students can do to get job experience on their resume is going to be critically important,” said Mass. Though he was speaking specifically about middle-tier college students, his analysis holds true when applied to any young jobseeker.

Don’t Call It Vo-Tech

In the past, vo-tech schools were places where boards of education dumped high school students with few academic aspirations or multiple behavioral problems. These days, New Jersey’s 21 county-run career and technical education schools have somewhat shed that stigma by transforming their mission from one that taught individual students a few job skills to one that prepares students for life-long career advancement. Not only do they require students to graduate with the same core academic credits as their mainstream peers, but also they have to earn a professional certificate while they’re there. They see a far greater number of high-achieving students who may well continue on to college, and they teach soft skills like team-work and punctuality.

“The beauty of these kinds of programs, particularly at the high-school level, is that they take all kinds of students and give them a way to connect academics with practical applications in a career-focused setting,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational–Technical Schools.

Administrators develop curricula, budgets, and equipment wish-lists by working with an advisory board comprising industry professionals and local community investment boards to stay current with emerging job trends and required proficiencies. This way, when a county’s big automotive plant upgrades to a new generation of machinery, classroom teachers can train students how to use it. Lately, the schools focus much of their energy on healthcare; culinary arts; STEM training for computer-assisted design, pre-engineering, digital media, and so forth; and a discipline called mechatronics, which is an approach to designing products that typically incorporate “smart” features like sensors and digital controls.

But there’s one major obstacle: capacity.

The NJ Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) found that last year that the county-funded vocational technical schools turned away 17,000 applicants. So together with NJBIA Savage’s group cofounded the NJ Employer Coalition for Technical Education, a partnership of 150 leaders from business, education, labor, and government who come together to meet “the skilled labor challenges of today’s global economy.”

The coalition:

  • favors state policy that “supports multiple pathways to success rather than a one-size-fits-all college preparatory mindset”

  • wants the state to help counties pay for facility expansions

  • encourages the business community to partner with these schools to address the needs of each county’s pool of employers

  • recommends joint ventures between vocational technical schools and county colleges to identify needs in key industry sectors and create career pathways for out-of-school youth

“It’s something different because businesses of all sizes are coming together to lead this,” said Andrew Musick who runs the program for the NJBIA. “Employability skills are a big issue for companies across all industries.”

What About Community Colleges?

Last week, the New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development officially launched the first two mobile training labs in the state – and two of the only ones in the country. The six-ton tractor trailers travel separately to community colleges to set up for 10-person classes where students can use computers and training equipment to learn metal fabrication or mechatronics and earn a professional certification at the end. Funded by a grant from the federal Department of Labor, the curricula were developed with help from the business community and aim to teach skills that can be applied to many different manufacturing positions.

The consortium also runs static programs that are more individually tailored to the needs of county-level businesses. As part of the Training on Demand Program, for example, staff scours local jobs openings and calls on companies to determine what types of skills are most needed in the marketplace. Once staff enlists leaders in those industries to help design specific programs and commit to hiring its graduates, the consortium launches a tailor-made training course at the closest county college.

“Manufacturing companies are willing to take people with very limited experiences as long as they have technical competencies and they understand the manufacturing process,” said Sivaraman Anbarasan, executive director of the consortium. “We’re trying to fill that gap.”

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