‘Middle-skills’ labor shortage poses challenge for area employers

They include female students learning to be welders, diesel mechanics

At the multi-campus Capital Region BOCES Career and Technical School, more than 1,000 students are training this academic year in “middle skills” — programs that could help them close a jobs gap lamented locally, statewide and nationally.

They include female students learning to be welders and diesel mechanics; an electrical trades student plotting his career as a utility lineman; a dropout, now a high school equivalency student, taking adult culinary classes.

“Middle-skill” jobs are occupations that require education and training beyond high school but not a four-year college degree. Instead, they might call for a diploma plus an apprenticeship or on-the-job training, or a diploma and a certificate (such as for a nurse’s aide or medical assistant). Or they could require a community college degree.

Related: Outlook 2017, The Gazette’s annual guide to business and technology in the Capital Region

A report last year from the state Department of Labor listed more than 200 “middle-skill” job titles, ranging from tax preparers and teacher assistants, to court reporters and pharmacy technicians, to police detectives and mechanical drafters.

According to the report, the jobs represent a significant share of the labor market in the country, but employers say they are having trouble finding enough workers with the right skills to fill them.

Indeed, between now and 2023, New York could face a middle-skill labor shortage of some 152,000 workers, says another state report, which puts the average wage across all middle-skill occupations at $51,000.

“Failure to address this gap will erode the state’s ability to strengthen middle class economic justice and cause New York State businesses to be less competitive in the global economy due to losses in productivity,” it predicts.

Harvard Business School noted the “oft-discussed anomaly” of companies crying for workers while legions of unemployed or underemployed workers yearn to be hired.

Its 2014 report, “Bridge the Gap: Rebuilding America’s Middle Skills,” called on business leaders, educators and policymakers to work together on the problem.

“Historically… middle-skill jobs served as the springboard into the middle class,” the report says.

It urged businesses to apply the same kind of rigor to sourcing middle-skill talent “that they historically applied to their materials supply chains.”

The report said policymakers should revise the metrics used in assessing job-training programs so that “success is defined by placing students and workers in meaningful employment.”

And it said educators should “embrace their roles as partners of employers” by keeping tabs on developments in the job market and what skills employers need.

John Yagielski, CEO of Capital Region BOCES, says its career and technical programs hear all the time from employers looking to fill jobs.

A longtime school leader — superintendent at Shenendehowa central before he retired, then serving stints as interim superintendent at the Schenectady city and Niskayuna central school districts — Yagielski took over as BOCES CEO last May. He’ll serve out the 2016-17 school year while the search for a new BOCES superintendent and CEO is conducted.

Yagielski says partnering with employers to meet their needs makes sense, but points to some of the hurdles BOCES faces.

One is “cultural,” he says, the “stigma” that completing career and technical training programs “are not as prestigious as going to a four-year college.”

But students come out of BOCES programs ready for work or for advanced training without the accumulated debt of a four-year degree.

“We’ve got to think in a more positive way about these jobs” and not “look down” at a BOCES path to filling them, Yagielski says.

Another BOCES hurdle is financial.

The training programs cost money, just over $11,000 per student that local districts will be charged this year for the half day spent at the BOCES campuses in Albany or Schoharie or at the Mohonasen Center for Advanced Technology. The programs run for two years.

Districts may have more students who want to attend BOCES programs than they can afford to send. “That’s a reality,” Yagielski says.

Businesses already offer time to BOCES to serve on advisory councils, and Yagielski would like to see more internships, apprenticeships and “investments” by employers that could get even more students involved.

“I believe we need to try it,” Yagielski said of additional partnerships with business.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].

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Categories: Business, News, Opinion, Schenectady County

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