As the economy continues to rebound after the recession we are starting to see some signs of hope in the sector most impacted by the downturn: Employment. In December 2014 the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) reported that the unemployment rate had declined to 5.6% which is the lowest that it has been since June of 2008. That being said there are still approximately 11 million Americans who are unemployed and millions more who are underemployed according to Economic Modeling Specialist International (EMSI). One of the biggest contributing factors seems to be a phenomenon called the skills gap.
The skills gap is defined by the EMSI as “the perceived mismatch between the needs of employers for skilled talent and the skills possessed by the available workforce”. This can be true of all three levels of employment (low, middle, and high skilled) and can also include situations where an employer is unwilling to raise the wages in order to hire the talent that they need; when employers don’t focus enough on on-the-job training; or when educational institutions aren’t preparing students with the skills that employers need. Whatever the case may be this is a growing problem across the country, though it varies in severity and circumstance depending on the region.
Based on data collected be the National Skills Coalition the Washington, DC region is facing a substantial middle skills gap. Middle skills jobs are those that require more than a high school diploma but not necessarily a four year college degree. For example, these positions usually require an associate’s degree or a degree from a technical school. In Maryland and Virginia middle skills jobs make up almost 50% of the workforce while they make up a little over 25% in the District. While the number of middle skill jobs is projected to drop in Maryland and Virginia between now and 2020 the drop will be marginal and the demand will remain well above 40% while in the District the demand is actually expected to increase to somewhere close to 30%. The statistic that is consistent throughout the region is that out of the low, middle, and high skilled positions, the demand for middle skilled workers exceeds the number of properly trained workers by relatively substantial margins. However, this does not appear to be true for the low and high skill positions.
The clear question that must be answered is how do we fill this middle skills gap? What is needed to provide those who are unemployed in the DC region and across the country with the skills and education they need to fill these high demand positions? Fortunately, state governments have started to take notice and begun to act. In 2014 more than 15 states enacted different skills related legislation in order to address the needs within their states. For example, in August Virginia launched a program called The New Virginia Economy Workforce Initiative which seeks to prepare the state’s residents for middle skill jobs and add 50,000 credentials in science, technology, health, and other sectors to the economy. Maryland is taking its own steps by working towards implementing sector partnership acts like Chapter 2 of House Bill 227, the Maryland Employment Advancement Right Now (EARN) Program. There are also community organizations like Goodwill of Greater Washington that aim to assist individuals in obtaining the training and education needed to fill some of these middle skills positions. Goodwill’s free job training and education programs prepare individuals for employment in some of the area’s high demand business sectors like hospitality and security. But more still needs to be done.