Developing the Middle-Skills Ecosystem

Photo Credit: Howard County Economic Development Authority

For the greater part of the 20th Century, middle-skill occupations were springboards to the middle class. From manufacturing to healthcare, transportation to trades, middle-skill workers historically achieved homeownership, financial stability and coveted facets of the American Dream. Over the last 20-plus years, high-skill and low-skill positions have dominated the marketplace, with middle-skill opportunities lagging behind. Requiring less than a four year degree but more education than a high school diploma, middle-skill jobs demand a high level of aptitude and problem solving abilities to perform responsibilities. The Maryland National Capital Region prioritizes middle-skills training, narrowing the gap between labor market supply and employer demand in meaningful ways.

Upskilling workers is expensive, so it’s often a roadblock to middle-skill job creation. Luckily, Anne Arundel County is removing this barrier to employment. Employer-driven initiatives are effective tactics, so the  Anne Arundel Workforce Training Grant is a matching grant program that covers 50% of the costs to grow and train a company’s workforce. Ideal for companies seeking to expand in or locate to Anne Arundel County, this program offsets the costs of on-the-job training, classroom instruction, training software and more. Anne Arundel County’s commitment to underemployed or unemployed residents is equally strong. Designed to help workers transitioning into new industries or entering the workforce after a period of underemployment or unemployment, the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation connects job seekers with training and certifications leading to middle-skill employment.

Hard (technical) skills and soft (interpersonal) skills position candidates for success, and Charles County fine-tunes both. Ever responsive to market needs, the College of Southern Maryland’s Guided Pathways offers six education and training tracks in sought-after fields. Offering associate’s degrees in business and information systems, arts and humanities, education and public service, health, trades, transportation and energy and STEM disciplines, the focus on hard and soft skills is exactly right. Striking a balance between technical training, problem solving and communication, Guided Pathways equips workers with the skills essential for long-term growth. Along the same lines, SkillUp Southern Maryland offers job seekers free access to over 5,000 skills courses and the personalized support to change industries or improve their prospects.

Middle-skill success stories start early in Frederick County, courtesy of the FCPS Youth Apprentice Program. Using a proven workforce strategy that diminishes gaps, the program helps high school juniors and seniors “earn while they learn,” accompanied by technical and classroom instruction. Apprenticeships are a win-win approach, as they supply essential skills to employers and create a confident workforce. Honing skills relevant to local jobs is the way forward, and Frederick County Workforce Services runs a BioTech Boot Camp that equips job seekers with the capabilities to enter the biotechnology arena. Home to over 100 biotechnology and life science firms, the demand is great and the pipeline is growing. With a guaranteed interview following program completion, the motivation is clear and the path is, too. Keeping eyes on the prize, The Prosperity Center, run by the United Way of Frederick County, puts that American Dream of financial security in reach. The Prosperity Center helps residents access financial counseling, overcome transportation barriers and plot routes to homeownership.

Howard County has approximately 10,000 open positions appropriate for middle-skill hires, and they’re answering the call by targeting a broad base of talent. The Howard County Office of Workforce Development helps military veterans and spouses transition to civilian employment by providing one-on-one support. By identifying and positioning the skills developed in the military or as a military spouse, the workforce team prepares veterans for high-demand opportunities. Those without veteran status don’t miss out, as adult and laid-off workers access similar support. And knowing that childcare, wellness and enrichment keep talent happy, Howard County Community College helps companies create programs for employee retention and balance.

Training opportunities in Montgomery County are seeded throughout local industries. WorkSource Montgomery’s Grant Relief for Onboarding Workers (GROW) helps local companies onboard new hires. An offering for businesses in key sectors impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, GROW helps companies equip workers with the right skill sets from the start, resulting in cost savings for participating firms and smooth transitions for employees. Green construction, as an industry, is in demand, but the labor pool needs attention. Teaming up on skills training, WorkSource Montgomery and Montgomery College offer a Green Construction Pre-Apprentice Program yielding industry-recognized certifications in 10 weeks’ time. On the biotechnology front, BioTrain is a public-private collaboration that elevates the local workforce. By offering free workshops to registrants employed in the biotechnology industry, Montgomery College keeps training economical and equitable. To keep innovation on point,  Bio-Trac equips professionals with the newest skills and methodologies.

Focused on demand-driven solutions,  Employ Prince George’s creates momentum in Prince Geoge’s County. Their Industry Bridge Programs are sector-specific offerings that align middle-skill aptitude with lead industries. Spanning information technology to construction, hospitality, healthcare and professional services, Industry Bridge meets the needs of local businesses and residents alike. When it comes to employment, Prince George’s County knows that the playing field isn’t level for all. Their demographic and youth programs help job seekers transcend hurdles and secure positions of value.

Establishing the concepts and collaborations for middle-skill employment programs takes commitment to the process, but the rewards are many. Capability gaps, retirements and underemployment dominate the national marketplace, so developing a skills ecosystem is the way forward. Our approaches are diverse and tailored to our communities, but are easily adaptable on a national scale.