Local workforce unprepared to fill coming jobs in transportation sector

Criminal background checks a leading barrier, study finds

September 29, 2014|By Kevin Rector | The Baltimore Sun

Industry growth and a tide of employee retirements in Baltimore's transportation sector will create or leave open thousands of jobs by 2020, but local job seekers aren't prepared to fill them, according to a study released Monday by the Opportunity Collaborative.

Low-income residents lack the needed technical training or have criminal records that make them ineligible for the jobs, according to the study by the coalition of state agencies, local governments, universities and nonprofits tasked with plotting a course toward sustainable economic growth for the Baltimore region. The region as a whole lacks a public transportation system that adequately connects low-income residents with employment centers and training programs.

New "pathways" for those workers to reach success must be created, the coalition found, lest the region miss a major opportunity to lift thousands of families out of poverty.

"Strength builds on strength, and we want our residents to benefit from the strength of our economy," said Scot Spencer, one of the group's co-chairs, at a panel discussion on the findings held Monday in Otterbein at the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

The meeting was attended by representatives of the various agencies, groups and jurisdictions that make up the Opportunity Collaborative, including the city and nearby counties, Morgan State University and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. Spencer, who is associate director for advocacy and influence at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, chairs the group along with Bill Cole, who recently left the City Council to become president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp.

The study, funded as part of a $3.5 million federal grant facilitating the collaborative, will help inform a broader Regional Workforce Development Plan the group is working to complete and release by next year.

It follows two previous studies that found middle-class employment opportunities lacking in the region, rising competition for jobs and a growing percentage of residents falling below the poverty line.

Officials focused on the transportation and warehousing sector in the new study because they see it as a promising one locally, based on expectations that the coming Panama Canal expansion will create jobs at the port of Baltimore and that major investments in transit projects such as the Red Line will further expand the industry.

"This is certainly a great area for us to be paying attention to," said Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and moderator of the discussion.

The industry already employs 32,800 people in the region, and will see a net increase of at least 1,800 new jobs by 2020, the study found. Thousands more jobs will become available through the retirement of older employees, who represent a large percentage of the current workforce.

The panel discussion featured officials from regional employers — including the railroad CSX Transportation and American Sugar Refining, which operates Domino — who said they are hiring and see growth in the future.

Based on interviews with employers throughout the region, the study identified five career fields in which there is some opportunity for entry-level employees making about $9.50 an hour to progress into family-supporting, middle-class jobs paying between $16 and $26 per hour. But background checks remained a major barrier for those interested in becoming drivers and logistics agents, diesel mechanics, merchant mariners and warehouse processers, the study found.

The Transportation Worker Indentification Credential, a federally required security clearance for workers throughout the transportation sector, prevents many with criminal records from entering this workforce.

Another barrier the study identified was the high cost of training and certification in those fields.

The study found more workforce development organizations, educational partners and employer-based training programs could increase the number of entry levels workers who successfully make their way into positions paying a family wage, but did not include specific policy recommendations.

Opportunity Collaborative officials said the feedback will help them create their final report, which is expected in February.

That report, Spencer said, will be "a plan of action, not of dust collection."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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