Mismatch between jobs, job seekers contributes to unemployment

More seek training, but career changes don't always go smoothly

April 17, 2011|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland has 210,000 unemployed residents searching for work. Maryland employers have 70,000 job openings they're trying to fill. The unemployment rate would drop overnight, state officials say, if many of the jobless people had the skills needed to fill those empty positions.

Unfortunately, it's not working out nearly that neatly.

Economic shifts — some potentially temporary, some permanent — have stranded an increasing number of unemployed workers in job limbo because their skills don't match up with employer demand.

Steady growth in health care jobs, for example, does little good for the thousands of manufacturing workers thrown onto the unemployment rolls. Adults with no education past high school are finding that their options, long on the decline, have shriveled even more in the past few years. And many jobs coming to the state as part of the nationwide military base reshuffling aren't open to workers without security clearances, no matter how well educated they are.

Larry Boyd, 42, knows what it's like to be in a shrinking industry. He's trying to make the leap to a growing one by going back to school.

"I've been laid off three times in three years," said the Arnold man, who worked in construction-material sales — a rough field since the housing bubble popped. After the last layoff, in December, he began studying hospitality management: "It's time to make a change."

The biggest contributor to high unemployment rates across the country is — of course — the fact that there simply isn't enough work to go around. U.S. job seekers outnumber job openings by a ratio of more than 4-to-1. Nearly half the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months.

But another part of the story is the mismatch that leaves both would-be employees and employers frustrated. Even with unemployment topping 7 percent in Maryland, nearly four in 10 employers tell University of Baltimore survey-takers that they're having trouble finding people to fill jobs — generally technical ones.

Another survey, conducted by an arm of employment services firm ManpowerGroup, found that one-quarter of Mid-Atlantic companies often find it hard to fill key positions, and many more report occasional problems.

Gov. Martin O'Malley launched a campaign last year to try to lift more workers from low-skilled to middle-skilled status. His labor secretary says job training is a key issue for Maryland, which has one of the nation's highest shares of residents with advanced degrees but is in the middle of the pack when it comes to people with at least a high school diploma.

"That's the No. 1 thing that I hear when I go out and talk to these companies: 'I can't hire the qualified, educated, technically skilled workforce that I need,'" Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez said. "There are companies that would walk in here today and say, 'I could hire 100 people right now if they had this particular computer skill.'"

Pasadena resident Rich Losier can attest to that appetite for certain skills. The network-engineering certification courses he took after a 2009 layoff from an IT management job quickly led to freelance gigs and then to full-time work at a defense contractor. He's still getting inquiries from employers months after he took the new job.

The training was "paramount," said Losier, who got a grant to cover the cost through the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp., which runs local one-stop job centers funded by the federal government.

"It helped me reinvent myself," he said.

Many are hoping for such a transformation. Community colleges, big providers of job training, have seen a surge of new students since the economy soured. Year-over-year enrollment in for-credit classes grew 5 percent last fall, on top of a 9 percent increase the year before.

By way of contrast, in the fall of 2007 — right before the recession began — enrollment rose by a more modest 2.6 percent.

Among the programs attracting strong interest is cybersecurity. Several community colleges offer classes to help train people for jobs at the National Security Agency and private companies. A federal grant of nearly $5 million is covering the cost of cybersecurity certification courses for unemployed and underemployed Marylanders trying to break into the burgeoning field.

Some of the career changers already have bachelor's degrees. Such students are "very easy to get into the workforce right away," said Kelly Koermer, dean of business, computing and technical studies at Anne Arundel Community College, which has locations near the NSA.

But jumping to a new industry can be a long and difficult affair. There's no guarantee of success.

Clifford Austin, 52, was laid off from a manufacturing job in 2008 when his division relocated to China. Now he's a bus driver for the city of Annapolis. Training to drive a bus wasn't a problem — he got it done over several weekends — but landing a driving position proved tough.

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