Jacksonville Business Journal: High demand for ‘middle-skilled’ jobsdriving education

Jacksonville Business Journal

by Amy Wimmer Schwarb

When Marisol Agloro lost her job as the office manager at a real estate company in 2008 — just as it was becoming clear that the housing market’s burst bubble was taking the rest of the economy down with it — she wasn’t too worried at first.

The real estate job had been a departure for her anyway, and she figured she could return to working on the business side of a hospital. After all, she had a four-year degree in health services administration from the University of Central Florida and had worked in the field for six years before taking the real estate job.
Agloro looked for months for a position that used her degree and experience. And as her confidence waned, she began rethinking her options.

“It was taking me forever to find anything, so that’s when I decided to go back to school for nursing,” Agloro says. “That was what I had wanted to do a long, long time ago, and I thought that would be a
better career for me.”

Eighteen months after starting training at Florida State College of Jacksonville, Agloro was a registered nurse with a job. She now works the night shift at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and with her career path laid out before her, she has already established her next goal: moving to the day shift.

Across the United States, the loss of manufacturing jobs has led some observers of the economy to opine that the American middle class is shrinking, with manufacturing jobs replaced by growth in
industries that require extensive higher education. At the other end of the spectrum are service-oriented positions that require nothing more than a high school diploma.

“There is a perception that going to college is the highest expression of success,” said Candace Moody, vice president of communications at WorkSource, a federally funded program that connects Northeast Florida workers with training and jobs. “But actually, the demand for four-year and beyond degrees is shrinking. The growing swath of jobs is in those ‘middle jobs.’ ”

The difference, of course, is that the type of jobs available for those who have an associate degree, a training certification or some college — but not a bachelor’s degree — are different than they were 20 years ago. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the manufacturing sector has been on the decline since hitting its peak in 1979, but the health care and computer fields continue to grow.

In other words, the middle class isn’t shrinking; it’s just changing. “There’s been a lot of emphasis on bachelor’s degrees because if Florida wants to remake its economy, if it wants to be less dependent
on housing and tourism, you have to look for industries that are clean and offer high-skilled types of jobs,” said Kathy Mizereck, executive director of the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools
and Colleges, which represents Florida’s 900 private higher education institutions. “Many of those are in science, energy, mathematics. But even in those environments, you also have to have a host of
technicians available to make any of those industries come to Florida.”

A study done in 2007 by The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., noted that while the need for these “middle-skills” employees has decreased over the past two decades, they still comprise about half
of all American jobs. Additionally, some job opportunities in this sector increased dramatically. Health technician jobs numbered 400,000 in 1986 and 1 million in 2006.

One of the study’s authors, Harry J. Holzer of Georgetown University, appeared before the Senate Joint Economic Committee this summer. Holzer explained that too often, the skills Americans have do not match the needs of employers, partly because of a lack of communication between the education and business sectors. As an example, Holzer points to the manufacturing industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even this struggling sector had a high ratio of vacancies to new hires, indicating that employers are having difficulty finding people qualified for the jobs. “Too many students obtain credentials that are not highly rewarded in the labor market,” Holzer told the panel. “At least partly, this is because our education and workforce systems largely operate in isolation from one another, with too few students gaining access to
career counseling and other employment services. Not all workers can attend or succeed in college, and many need other forms of job training that prepare them for good-paying occupations and sectors.”
WorkSource tries to bridge the gap between education and business, helping fill employers’ needs. Beyond investing in qualified students such as Agloro, WorkSource partners with local businesses to retrain
workers — helping to keep those businesses in Northeast Florida rather than risk them relocating to areas with more skilled workers. “Our job is to help people understand that education can be a series
of training steps,” Moody said. “Graduating from high school is a moral imperative for our children. Beyond that, you can get some post-secondary education in an area that provides opportunities.
“One of the reasons health care is such a priority for us is because it does offer those opportunities,” Moody said, explaining that about 70 percent of the students WorkSource helps right now are planning
careers in the health field. “You can work in the field for a while, and once you’ve decided which direction you are interested in going, you can seek more training.”

When Florida State College studied which of its graduates were earning the most money, Moody said, it discovered that those who earned an insurance certificate — a training that takes just a few months — had the highest income potential. And Mizereck noted that even jobs that might be considered oldschool
can be needed and vital in a particular economy. The 62-yearold Tulsa Welding School in Jacksonville, for instance, fills an important need.“Welding sounds like something that’s old and no one’s doing
anymore,” Mizereck said. But actually, in a port city, it’s very important.”

Agloro worked through WorkSource to get funding for school at Florida State College. And the program came with something else, too: some personal guidance that helped her with interview skills.
She found a nursing job fairly quickly and easily, earning $22 an hour and fulfilling a childhood dream that she had abandoned in college. “At UCF, I had a little bit of doubt about myself that I could do it, so I
kind of backed off it,” Agloro said. “But now I’m doing it — and I was really, really prepared for this job.”
And Agloro’s experience isn’t unusual, Mizereck said. Programs that tie the graduates they’re producing to the needs of the community successfully place students in jobs. “The proof’s in the pudding,” Mizereck said, “and these students are going to work.”

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