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Op-ed

Baltimore group seeks to ‘RetrainAmerica’ for jobs of the future | COMMENTARY

FILE- In this Jan. 15, 2019, file photo a robot named Marty cleans the floors at a Giant grocery store in Harrisburg, Pa. Robots aren’t replacing everyone, but a quarter of U.S. jobs will be severely disrupted as artificial intelligence accelerates the automation of today’s work, according to a new Brookings Institution report. The report published Thursday, Jan. 24, says roughly 36 million Americans hold jobs with “high exposure” to automation, meaning about 70 percent of their work tasks could soon be performed by machines using current technology. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Baltimore and the country are at an important crossroads that will decide the economic fate for millions of people for years to come. COVID-19 has triggered historic unemployment levels. Due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and our path to medical, social and economic recovery, we don’t know if or when many of these jobs will return.

Even before the crisis hit, changing consumer behaviors, automation and digital transformation were shifting the employment landscape. Grocery stores no longer need baggers, but engineers to debug self-checkout software. Factories have more robots on the floor than humans. Farming equipment is more advanced than the rockets that took us to the moon.

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However, those displaced by technology or coronavirus-triggered closures are some of the least likely to be able to secure jobs in expanding industries. A combination of cost and outdated methods of assessing and hiring talent lock many people out of the jobs of the future.

We can’t let this displacement of lives and livelihoods continue unremedied.

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If we do nothing, we will exit this crisis even more unprepared for the changes in consumer behaviors that favor digital over physical interactions. Our skills gap will widen as companies and government find that the workforce they need doesn’t exist, and, with increased economic inequality as those with technical/digital skills are well compensated, service industry workers will be left floundering.

The remedy begins with RetrainAmerica, an effort launched in May by a coalition of local private businesses, government and nonprofits with one goal: to give anyone — regardless of background, education or prior experience — the opportunity to get retrained for jobs of the future.

In October, we took a major step to achieving this goal by launching the Baltimore City Technology and Software Development Fellowship program. A collaborative partnership between Baltimore City, Baltimore Corps and Catalyte, this program will create equitable and family-sustaining technology careers, build a sustainable talent pipeline for city agencies, improve community health outcomes and help modernize Baltimore’s information technology infrastructure.

Using Catalyte’s technology talent transformation platform, we are able to identify Baltimore area residents, from any background, who have the aptitude to become great software developers. We then train them for free and hire them as software developers.

The first round of fellows are already making the city’s applications more secure and helping with important public health issues involving the pandemic. This group includes people like Katherine, who previously worked for her family’s home contracting company. Or Alena, a Belarusian immigrant who made a midlife career change into the technology industry. Through the training and software developer fellowship, they, and many others, are deployed working on critical projects for Baltimore City Information & Technology (BCIT) and the Baltimore City Health Department.

These first two projects are only the beginning. Through this fellowship we can retrain hundreds or thousands of local residents and put their potential to use improving the lives of all city residents. The city can reduce costs while improving its information technology infrastructure and citizen services. And, because entry into the fellowship isn’t gated by a person’s pedigree, educational attainment or previous job experience, we can create equitable economic uplift throughout the region.

Not only can we put people back to work, but retrain them for higher-paying careers. For example, Catalyte’s retrained software developers, the same people who would become technology fellows, increased their earnings nearly four times in just five years, from $25,000 to $98,000, regardless of prior technology experience or education level. Imagine the economic benefits of that wage growth applied to thousands of people in neighborhoods across Baltimore.

Looking beyond this specific fellowship, applying this type of retraining lens across multiple industries can help solve three critical pieces of our current economic situation: retraining and employing those seeking new, more stable, family-sustaining careers; providing businesses with the skilled, local talent they need to fill open positions and better compete on the national level; and, growing local and state tax bases, preventing reduction in essential programs and services.

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Unless we provide workers direct opportunities for new career paths, we miss the chance to create a more equitable, prosperous and sustainable economy. We risk prolonging the economic downturn and further stratifying our city between the haves and have-nots.

But, by coming together, changing the ways in which we assess talent and hiring those who can do the job, we can put Baltimore, Maryland, and the country ahead of where we were before the pandemic started. Together, we can retrain America.

Fagan Harris (fagan@baltimorecorps.org) is president and CEO of Baltimore Corps.


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