Behind the headlines of a strong job market stands the threat of a skills gap. The mismatch between what the job market needs and the skills of underemployed workers represents a missed opportunity to drive economic growth while lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty.
One local manufacturing company recently told participants at a listening session at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that they were experiencing such a stark skills gap in meeting their growing business demands, they sought out a partnership with a nearby prison to train and recruit employees. While companies report difficulty recruiting qualified candidates, approximately 250,000 people in Massachusetts are either not working and want a job or would prefer full-time work to make ends meet for themselves and their families, but can only find part-time employment.
A report from the UMASS Donahue Institute adds another layer to this paradox, stating, “these potential workers may not have the skills and experience that are well aligned with the needs of the state’s employers.” And in Massachusetts, where the cost of living is among the highest in the nation, it is essential that adults have access to career pathways leading to living wage jobs.
United Way is bridging that skills gap to benefit both these workers and their families, as well as our region’s employers and economy.
“United Way’s investment in community-based job skills training has evolved to reflect the changing demands of the workforce,” says Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “After a careful review of the most innovative and effective programs, we’ve made a strategic shift to fund organizations that focus on job skills training that is connected to a defined career pathway and driven by regional employer needs.”
“The success of the programs we support is that they recognize not all positions require a 4-year degree – that technical training is often the missing piece in filling the skills-gaps such as technology services and biotech,” Ausiello continued.”They have found a way to train people who might otherwise face discrimination in hiring with the skills they need to compete for jobs that pay a living wage.”
That shift is paying dividends. Last year, through funds raised in workplace campaigns and from individual donors, United Way invested more than $1.2 million in 17 community-based organizations such as Year Up, Roca, Project Hope, Catholic Charities, Urban League of Boston, BEST Corporation, the Asian American Civic Association and more. United Way also funded eight financial opportunity centers including JVS Boston, Lawrence CommunityWorks, Quincy Community Action Programs, Community Teamwork, and more to provide job training and readiness programs with resume building and interview skill development, and coaching to help meet financial goals.
The results: nearly 2,000 people were placed in industry-specific jobs with career pathways, over 1,000 workers earned an industry-recognized certificate, credential or degree.
Earlier this year, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts recommended some overall solutions to the skills gap faced by Massachusetts workers and employers, including:
- Overhauling of the workforce development system to ensure that people of all ages are being taught the skills that employers demand;
- Ensuring that public schools provide the basic skills students will need to compete for jobs that were not even envisioned 20 years ago and encouraging collaboration among employers, schools, community colleges, universities and training providers to establish a consistent and logical path from learning to employment.
- Resolving immigration issues that have restricted the availability of skilled foreign workers in Massachusetts; and
- Making sure opportunity reaches the full diversity of the Massachusetts population. According to AIM, the unemployment rate among people of color is nearly double the overall unemployment rate.
Here are four ways that United Way, in partnership with community-based organizations and businesses, is providing low-wage and unemployed workers with the skills that today’s employers need and helping to ensure they are placed in jobs that will enable them to support themselves and their families.
1. Creating opportunities for a diverse workforce
Resilient Coders trains people of color for high growth careers as software engineers and connects them with jobs in Boston’s tech industry. Says their founder and executive director David Delmar: “This year we hit the milestone of placing 100% of our January-April 2019 cohort into jobs, with most students being placed before graduation. Those students made on average $96,000.”
This past spring, Urban College of Boston won a $75,000 prize through United Way’s Social Innovation Venture Fund, a partnership with Aetna, a CVS Health company. Michael Taylor, President at Urban College, said they asked themselves, “How can we open doors for our diverse students by creating a better pathway for clinical research careers? How can we provide more equitable access for low-income individuals to pursue benefits-eligible jobs in Massachusetts’ booming health and biotech sectors?” The result: a partnership with Tufts Medical Center to offer a new, one-year certificate program for Clinical Research Coordinators to help diverse students access entry-level opportunities in clinical research positions.
2. Reconnecting older workers
“The job search has changed dramatically during the past few years and presents a number of challenges to job seekers with years of experience,” said Marian Walsh, Executive Director at Operation ABLE. “Employers are not interested in long, detailed resumes. They only want to see how the applicant meets the requirements of the job and how they can best benefit the company.”
Mature workers, says Operation ABLE, must learn how to construct concise, powerful resumes and cover letters and how to conduct a job search through email, online applications, and the Internet. They must also be fluent in social media as much of the hiring these days happens through LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. As most jobs are filled through networking, successful job seekers must also be able to network and present themselves to employers and others who might have job leads.
3. Partnering with local industries
Community Work Services operates successful and profitable business enterprises that today generate nearly 40% of the organization’s annual revenues. CWS places workers in these businesses, specializing in Assembly & Packaging, Property Maintenance, Food Services & Catering, and Staffing Solutions. CWS serves over 200 customers from the business, nonprofit, and government sectors, and business revenues are used to invest in ongoing programs to expand the number of participants and depth of services offered to help people transform their lives through employment. Current partners include: Panorama Foods, Project Bread, Internal Revenue Service, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, PerkinElmer, Marble Harbor Investments, Trillium Investments, Mightier, and Ivyees.
There’s a huge need for talent in the advanced manufacturing sector – yet there were a few employers in the Merrimack Valley who seemed to be thriving. Lawrence CommunityWorks wanted to find out why. So they, along with the public/private nonprofit Lawrence Partnership, conducted an employer survey. They found out that these companies were actually growing their businesses in competitive industries. What set them apart? They were operating bilingually. That sparked Lawrence Community Works to apply for and wina $75,000 prize from United Way’s Social Innovation Venture Fund to create more opportunities for struggling workers by transforming local manufacturing workplaces into bilingual environments.
4. Welcoming immigrant and foreign-born workers
At a time when employers are facing a serious skills gap in their search for employees, it just doesn’t make sense to turn away skilled workers just because they are immigrants or foreign-born. International Institute of New England creates opportunities for refugees and immigrants to succeed through resettlement, education, career advancement and pathways to citizenship. IINE has expanded vocational training by implementing a Hospitality Training Program in Revere, Chelsea, Malden, and Everett. In partnership with MetroNorth Regional Employment Board, skills training is provided in these four Greater Boston communities to prepare immigrants and non-native English speakers for jobs in the hospitality industry.
Federal and state policy plays a role, too. United Way provided seed funding to the Massachusetts Business Coalition on Immigration, which was launched by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). The MBIC brings together business leaders from across the Commonwealth to educate their peers and government officials about federal and state policies that ensure companies have the talent they need at all levels of training. MBIC advocates for policies that foster complete economic integration of foreign-born talent and is committed to the success of immigrants in the economy as workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, residents, consumers, investors, residents, and citizens.
Tell us what the skills gap looks like in your industry. What are the positions and skills you have trouble hiring for, and how are you currently collaborating to fill them?