Most area jobs `low-skill' and they're scarce, too

Demand for work nearly three times greater than openings

May 22, 1999|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Nearly two out of three existing jobs in the Baltimore metropolitan area are classified as "low-skill," and yet there still aren't enough to go around, according to a study released yesterday.

The shortage of jobs for people without enough education, vocational training or computer skills is so pervasive that about three unemployed low-skilled workers exist for every low-skill job available, the report said.

What's more, about 40 percent of the jobs for low-skilled workers pay less than $8.50 an hour -- an annual income of $17,000 that the study's researchers say is marginal for building a decent life.

"This report is a snapshot," said Joanne Nathans of the Job Opportunities Task Force, which sponsored the study. "It shows the area's strengths and opportunities, as well as its problems."

The study underscores a paradox that exists even as the economic boom enters its ninth year of growth: High-technology companies lament the shortage of workers and the sometimes-exorbitant salaries they must pay to keep those they have. And yet there are too few jobs for unskilled workers, even though low-skill jobs comprise the bulk of the economy.

Low-skill jobs are technically those that require no formal education, such as a vocational or high-school diploma, and whichcan be learned "on the job."

In the Baltimore area, the top such occupations are retail salespeople; cashiers; janitors, cleaners and maids; office clerks; and other sales and related workers.

If such workers can't earn a decent living, they become "discouraged" and stop seeking work, exacerbating poverty, crime and other social problems, sponsors involved with the report said after the press conference.

The study, financed the Abell Foundation, was conducted by researchers at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Center, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, and a consultant, MEB Associates.

The study's objective was to see if a so-called "job gap" exists -- meaning too many low-skilled workers compete for too few low-skill jobs.

If they found such a gap, members of the research group hoped to measure its extent and then recommend strategies to alleviate the problem. The study's data came largely from existing job statistics.

The Job Opportunities Task Force is a group of experts from government and private agencies who are concerned with the plight of low-skilled workers.

One such person is Duane Barksdale, 28, of Baltimore who earned his high school diploma via a General Educational Development (GED) program.

He recalled how he bounced from job to job, at one point trying to follow his father's lead by starting his own home-improvement business. After banks refused to loan him money for the business, he finally got the funds "on the street." His venture was interrupted by trouble with the law. The business ultimately failed.

Barksdale has since had jobs in Baltimore County and Baltimore but it's been tough because employers have been distrustful of him and he of them. He now works odd jobs and helps at a counseling center, telling others to "stop hanging around on street corners, take off the baseball cap, put on a shirt and tie and work a 9-to-5 job."

Barksdale's experiences as an unskilled worker may be surprisingly prevalent in the region. According to the study, 1.19 million people were employed in 1997 in metropolitan Baltimore, of which 62 percent worked in low-skill jobs.

Thirty-five percent of those jobs were in the city.

Even so, there aren't enough low-skill jobs to go around, the study said.

Typically in the Baltimore region, 33,276 "officially" unemployed people are looking for full-time work in low-skill jobs.

There are another 43,400 people who would like full-time work in low-skill areas but who aren't found in the official unemployment ranks -- either because they're forced to work part-time to get some money, or because they are so discouraged by their lack of success that they've given up job-hunting, according to the report.

However, only 26,500 positions are typically available to low-skilled workers -- meaning there are 2.9 out-of-work low-skilled workers for each job they could qualify for, the study concludes.

And even those who do find jobs probably have a difficult time making ends meet, concludes the study.

The Maryland Department of Human Resources estimates a "minimum living" income -- the wage a working parent needs to support a family of three -- at about $6.59 an hour, or $13,600 annually. Sixteen percent of low-skilled workers earn even less -- about $5.75 an hour, the study said.

Despite the apparent depth of the problem , the study says possible remedies exist. Among them:

Work force development programs such as job-training and education.

* Family support programs, such as day care, to free people for work and to supplement their living standards.

* Support services to break down racial and ethnic barriers.

* A regional approach to solving problems of low-skilled workers.

All should be looked at, said Nathans of the Job Opportunities Task Force.

"In an otherwise sturdy boat, all it takes is one leak to sink an enterprise," she said.

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