Falling short on training

New economy asks more of workers, but job help wanes

October 20, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl and Jamie Smith Hopkins and and | Stephen Kiehl and Jamie Smith Hopkins and and,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com and jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

The knowledge economy that Maryland is pushing as its future - a promised land filled with high-paying jobs in health care, defense, biotechnology and professional services - is shutting out tens of thousands of the region's residents.

As lab coats replace work shirts, the underside of the new economy becomes clear: The more dominant it becomes, the harder it is for people without specialized training to participate. That disconnect could become even more pronounced in a state that has made the pursuit of biotechnology official policy.

Success in this new economy is tied to education. Many of the best jobs go to those with advanced degrees. A high school diploma, once a ticket to the middle class, now guarantees little more than low-paying service work. Dropouts are in even more trouble.

But help beyond high school is diminishing. Federal funding for career centers, training and counselors has been slashed - down $34 million statewide since 2000, adjusted for the rising cost of living. That's a 55 percent drop. Stopgap efforts by the state and city have not made up the difference.

"Our diplomas used to get us everywhere. They don't anymore. They just don't," said Baltimore resident Phyllis Owens, 59, a high school graduate who has been doing temporary work since she lost her job as an office manager in 2000. "Job descriptions used to be a paragraph and they paid well. Now they're three pages and they pay squat."

As the state embraces the high-tech economy, it is not focused on people like Owens. State leaders prefer to talk about the benefits. They say Maryland is adding good jobs and attracting educated people while states dependent on manufacturing lose ground.

But biotech jobs are largely out of reach for the 460,000 adults in the Baltimore area with just a high school education and the 250,000 who never finished. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who wants to invest $1.1 billion over the next decade in the biotech industry, has not proposed anything remotely close to that to expand worker training or adult education.

Foundations, nonprofits and school systems are trying to help. Major hospitals are working together to train their own workers. And the city's fledgling bioparks are pointing residents of their poor neighborhoods toward work and training. It is still not enough.

"They're all sort of running on their own fumes, and as a state, that's not going to get the job done," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore. "We need a bigger investment, and we need the state to step forward and take leadership. ... We have employers who need good workers and we have workers who need good jobs, and we spend almost nothing on worker training."

Without a concerted effort, poverty will likely become more entrenched. The gulf is already starker in Maryland than most states. Since the late 1980s, the average income of the highest-earning Maryland families has risen 47 percent while the income of those at the bottom increased only 9 percent. That gap grew faster here than in all but six states, according to the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

There are growing fields that need workers, from nursing to engineering. And in Baltimore, there are plenty of people who need work: About 120,000 city adults under age 65 are officially out of the labor force, which means they are not working or actively seeking employment. Many of them lack the skills they need to land steady jobs.

But slots in training programs for all kinds of jobs are being cut, even as the need grows. The nonprofit Civic Works is training 75 people for health care jobs this year, down from 108 two years ago. The number of metro-area students with federal Workforce Investment Act training grants fell by half in four years, to about 500 in the 2007 fiscal year.

Federal money to the state for career and technology education has been reduced by 14 percent since 2001 - a loss of $2.7 million, accounting for inflation. And as the sinking economy compels mid-year cuts in the state budget, higher education is taking a hit. Among the $300 million in reductions approved last week by the Board of Public Works were $15.6 million from the state university system, $8.2 million from community colleges and $1.3 million from a scholarship program for needy students.

"There's far less opportunity for people who don't have education and skills to compete, so they're going to be trapped in the lower end of jobs," said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "Workers with higher education and skills will win in the new economy."

'No hope out there'

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