Analysis: There Are More Middle-Skill Jobs Than Workers In D.C.

August 29, 2014

An analysis by the National Skills Coalition shows that there are more jobs that "require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree" in D.C. than there are people to fill them.

These so-called middle-skill jobs made up 27 percent of all jobs in D.C. in 2012, the last year when data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was available. At the same time, only 23 percent of workers were trained for a middle-skill job. A projection created using data from the D.C. Department of Employment Services shows that, between 2012 and 2022, 30 percent of available jobs in the city will be middle-skill level. (A DOES spokesperson said the projection for 2014 and 2022 will be available sometime next year.)

Brooke DeRenzis, NSC's State Policy Analyst who co-authored of the analysis, said states and places like D.C. can address this gap by supporting sector partnerships to "align training with the skills that are needed for a particular industry to grow."

"It's an effort to make sure that the workforce development system is aligned with the needs that have been identified by multiple employers within an industry," she said.

Promoting "career pathways" is another strategy that allows people to get certifications while they're still working. While working for DC Appleseed, DeRenzis authored a report on this strategy that recommended the creation of a [sic].

Sarah Oldmixon, director of Workforce Initiatives at the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, said in the past these middle-skill jobs were "off limits to people" without a high school diploma.

"There's definitely a continued need to think about a strategies to advance people into that middle-skill level in our region and obviously an opportunity, too," she said. Oldmixon said D.C. is slowly making progress, including "getting more serious about building career pathways — thinking about how to link different levels of education and work experience to meet people where they are and allow them to move in and out of the work force and training as their life circumstances allow."

In D.C., more than 60,000 working-age adults have less than a high school diploma or equivalent degree, a challenge Oldmixon said there's been "some attempt to address, but it's long and slow progress." Moving these people, who may be chronically unemployed or stuck in a low-wage job, to the next level is an ongoing issue.

But Oldmixon praised the D.C. Workforce Investment Council, a private sector board that advises the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, for working with Office of the State Superintendent of Education, D.C. Public Schools and the University of the District of Columbia to "build more consensus around what are the key industry sectors that are really thriving in the region." From there, the city can look at the middle-skill job opportunities in D.C. "that we can be focusing our energy on."

Still, Oldmixon said the scale and quality of workforce development programs in the city need improvement. "There's some programs that are really strong," she said, adding that they successfully address personal and skill barriers. But other programs "may do really well for a small number of people, but aren't robust enough to meet the needs of a larger population."
As a D.C. strategic workforce plan [PDF] released last year notes, there are more than more than 30 programs and services across a dozen agencies that are intended to help residents obtain job skills and employment, including programs targeting the service needs of specific subpopulations."

"However, these programs and services have often operated in isolation, with little effort to coordinate activities or share data across systems to ensure that workforce resources are being allocated in the most efficient and effective manner," the report noted. "This disconnected approach limits opportunities to leverage the strengths of various stakeholders to more fully support the needs of job seekers and businesses and inhibits the shared communication and learning between programs and providers that can help to drive workforce innovation and improvements."

"A significant number" of people in D.C. who have skills training also face barriers because of past criminal activity. (An estimated 60,000 people in D.C. have a record.) Councilmember Muriel Bowser held a roundtable on WMATA's criminal background check program earlier this year and discovered that just five D.C. residents were hired by the agency through DOES in fiscal year 2013 and one in fiscal year 2014. WMATA has since been sued over the policy.

The Council's recent vote to "ban the box," which limits when an employer can ask an applicant about criminal history, as well as steps by the Obama administration, have taken some of the burden off returning citizens seeking jobs. But it will take time before those measures are "fully integrated into our hiring culture," Oldmixon said.

"This is a difficult economy in a lot of ways to carve out middle-skill jobs opportunities," Oldmixon said, noting that the city doesn't have a huge manufacturing base. "It's just a challenge to continuously make sure that the training programs are being very conscientious about connecting people to the right types of skills and credentials."

One thing that could create more longterm economic opportunity in D.C., Oldmixson said, is an "explicit focus in our economic policies around trying to really cultivate more of those [middle-skill] jobs." That was seen in the recently released Ward 5 Works plan, which outlines ways to maintain industrial and "low-barrier" jobs in that part of the city through zoning changes and an advocate to connect people to District job programs.

"In a region that is increasingly … bifurcated between those lowest skill jobs and the highest," she said, "to the extent that we can do things like the Ward 5 industrial policy, that do try to create some space to cultivate the types of businesses that are more likely to employ people who have some post-high school training, but less than a high school degree, … are really important to the strategy not only for the city, but for the region."