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Op-ed

Middle skill jobs get short shrift

The Baltimore region is justifiably proud of strong companies in cutting edge fields like cybersecurity and biotech, with a workforce powered by our world-class universities and colleges. High-tech, higher education-driven industries are our future, but we also must double down on the training and transportation connections needed to create and fill what are called "middle-skill" jobs.

Middle-skill jobs are a critical link in our economy that too often gets short shrift. These jobs require some training beyond high school — for example, at a community college or in an apprenticeship program — and provide pathways to good paying careers for people who don't attend college. Key regional industries creating these jobs include distribution, logistics, manufacturing, IT, business services, construction, health care and the port.

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A recent report by the regional Opportunity Collaborative, spearheaded by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council — which I chair — provided a snapshot of the challenge ahead of us: "Historically, our port, steel mills and rail yards provided stable, family supporting employment to Baltimore's workers. In the mid-twentieth century, Bethlehem Steel and Lockheed Martin provided over 80,000 jobs in southeast Baltimore County alone. Today, those jobs have all but vanished."

The recent unrest in Baltimore has offered an opportunity for introspection. What can we advocate to provide better opportunities for all residents in the Baltimore region? We have answers here in our backyard — at places like Sparrows Point — if we are willing to prioritize and invest. With a thoughtful strategy, I am confident that we can restore the opportunities that too many families in our region now believe are out of reach.

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Progress is already happening in Baltimore County. When the steel mill closed, our county Department of Economic and Workforce Development was right there with immediate support, helping to transition the steel mill's last employees toward new careers. Over 600 steelworkers came to our job centers, sat down with our team and started building new career plans. Today, over 500 people have retrained and started new jobs, with another 100 finishing up their training programs.

We have re-tooled our Baltimore County workforce development programs to make them even more responsive. We listen to our business community to learn what their employment needs are, and then help train future employees to achieve industry-recognized credentials that have value in the labor market. We also listen to people who are looking for jobs so we can meet their needs at different education and skill levels.

There is much to be done, because training is not the only challenge. We must continue to build a transportation network that better connects people with jobs. And we must encourage housing growth along corridors where jobs are located.

In a twist of fate, one of the key targets of opportunity for middle-skill job growth in Maryland is the site of the former Sparrows Point steel mill, where thousands of middle-skill jobs once helped support families in the last century.

Sparrows Point Terminal, whose ownership includes local investors, is creating a master plan to redevelop the 3,100-acre site into a job hub that will include transportation, manufacturing and port employers. The new owners share our county government's vision to create thousands of middle-skill jobs — with about 300 people already reporting to work there every morning.

In concert with our employers and education partners, we must target workforce development toward specific industries like those sprouting at Sparrows Point and bring economic growth to areas that have been left behind.

Our goal in Baltimore County is to ensure that every person who is willing to work hard and get the training they need will be able to find a solid career path and build a middle class life. Judging by the recent uptick of employment in Baltimore County, this can be a model for the rest of our state. Middle-skill training and partnerships with the private sector create job growth. The future looks bright.

Kevin Kamenetz has been Baltimore County Executive since 2010. He can be reached at Kevin@Baltimorecountymd.gov.


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