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'Middle-skill' STEM jobs could lift low-skilled workers in Baltimore to middle class, report says

GBC report recommends improving pathways to mid-skill STEM careers

Low-skilled workers in Baltimore are missing growing opportunities for careers in science, technology, engineering and math because of limited access to and training for STEM jobs requiring an associate degree level of education or less.

That's the premise of a report to be released Wednesday by the Greater Baltimore Committee and Associated Black Charities that recommends ways to boost the pipeline of workers in such "middle skill" occupations.

More than 50 businesses, nonprofits and philanthropic leaders were interviewed for the report, including leaders at Bank of America, BGE, Lockheed Martin, LifeBridge Health, Maryland Live and the University of Maryland Medical System.

"We know there are a lot of challenges for low-skilled adults in the Baltimore region to move into a career that pays a family-supporting wage," said Chris Seals, an economist and president of Field Guide Consulting, which led the study's research and writing. "People need to move into careers that are sustainable and pay a wage that can sustain a family, and there are a lot of opportunities, especially as it comes to advancement."

The Baltimore area has a handful of organizations helping workers move into middle-skills positions, including "some very, very good programs," but "not a lot, and they are limited in the number they can work with," Seals said.

The report said STEM jobs requiring some training or certifications could offer a future for "thousands of unemployed and underemployed Baltimore City residents... Undoubtedly, workers with a bachelor's degree or even high levels of education fill some of Baltimore's middle-skill STEM jobs, but growing demand for these jobs is creating an opportunity for workforce development organizations to place qualified middle-skill workers into these positions."

More than 43 percent of STEM jobs in the Baltimore region, or 122,000 jobs, require an associate degree level of education or less, according to a Brookings Institution analysis cited in the study. About a quarter of all jobs in the Baltimore area are STEM related.

Compared with careers requiring similar levels of education, middle-skill STEM jobs often pay higher wages and offer more chances to advance, the study said. Workers in middle-skill STEM jobs in 2011 earned 61 percent more than workers in non-STEM occupations with similar levels of education, or $58,504 per year on average — above the 2015 living wage of $52,998 for the city.

Sectors that offer the best chances for lower-skilled workers to move into middle-skill STEM careers include energy, manufacturing, technology, design and construction, health care and bioscience.

The biggest share of jobs are in the health care sector, with nearly 31,000 jobs such as medical records technician, radiology specialist, surgical technician and paramedic. Another 16,000 jobs are in technology — positions such as network specialist and security analyst. And more than 12,000 jobs fall in the energy sector, with wages averaging $21 per hour to $28 per hour, the highest wage levels of the six sectors.

In construction and design, advances in technology, "building information modeling" and retrofitting are expected to drive change in the industry over the next decade, requiring tools such as construction-related software and mobile computing skills. But employers are concerned that few workers are skilled in using the technology, the report said. Investment in new energy sources such as offshore wind power will drive the energy sector.

Researchers recommended finding ways to expand upon the work being done by several workforce development organizations. Little is offered, for instance, to help workers find their way into middle-skill STEM jobs in fields such as information technology, energy and manufacturing. The report encourages education-driven workforce programs to integrate remedial math and reading skills.

Seals noted that one successful training model has been developed by YearUp, which offers programs in the information technology field in partnership with Baltimore City Community College. Participants are taught job readiness skills for specific jobs during part of the program, then work for employers in internships that are funded by the employers.

"The program is strong enough and attractive enough to employers that they are willing to pay for the internships," he said.

Researchers also recommended programs that give workers experience, whether simulated or through internships or on-the job training.

"Experience really plays a big role in middle skills," Seals said, "and work experience can compensate for not having a bachelor's degree."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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