Mike Rawlings and Chauncy Lennon: We need to join forces to close Dallas’ skills gap

May 24, 2015

Texas, especially the Dallas-Fort Worth region, has been on a pretty good economic run for a few years, with low unemployment and growth ahead of the national average. But there’s a dangerous bump in the road ahead that business, government and community groups must fix before it slows our progress.

That threat is, ironically, unfilled jobs. Not just any jobs, but what are known as middle-skill jobs that provide important services in our communities while also giving people a career path to higher income, higher-value work and greater participation in the economy.

We call them middle-skill jobs because, while they don’t require a college degree, they do require a high school education and specialized training — usually a certification program. There are lots of these jobs.

A new JPMorgan Chase study reports 42,000 middle-skill jobs will be open every year for the next four years in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. That’s 168,000 good-paying jobs: medical assistants, health information clerks, medical records supervisors and others in health care; computer support, network technicians, help-desk managers and others in information technology. Health care and IT are two of the most in-demand sectors, and there’s also a need in finance, aerospace, electronics and component manufacturing and across the economy, the report found.

Middle-skill positions pay much better than unskilled labor, averaging about $24.50 an hour. That’s more than triple minimum wage and one-third higher than what is considered a living wage in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Certainly, good pay is important. It improves lives for workers and their families, and it improves the overall economy. But the initial bump in pay is just one benefit from getting people the training to fill those jobs. The most important thing for many is that those middle-skill positions often open a door to a career path that helps workers keep advancing.

Consider the example of 22-year-old Dominique Island. The El Centro College student knew in high school that she wanted a career caring for people. She wanted to be a nurse. But as diligent and committed as she was, Dominique knew it would take years at her minimum-wage retail job to pay for the courses she needed to become a nurse, if she could manage it at all.

Then she heard about a skills development program called Project OnRamp. She made a call, and within four weeks of being accepted had her electrocardiogram certification and a full-time job at Methodist Dallas Medical Center earning twice what she did in retail.

Even more important than her new job as a telemetry technician responsible for monitoring 30 patients in intensive care, Dominique is now on a fast track to her career in nursing and another doubling of salary. That’s just the beginning for her.

Filling the middle-skills gap isn’t a challenge government can fix by itself or through legislation. It requires a committed, collaborative effort among government, business and nonprofit organizations to raise awareness of the problem and the solutions: to fund and run the training programs, develop the skills and connect people to jobs.

Together, we need to support local institutions — community colleges and other technical training organizations — to give more people access to these career entry points. For its part, JPMorgan Chase has made a five-year global commitment to addressing the skills gap. That includes $7 million to help our region.

Together, we must invest in community-based services to meet the needs of individuals so they can seize these career opportunities. Those needs include: job coaching, child care, housing assistance, financial coaching and education grants.

When business, government and community groups come together to help high-need populations with training, internships, jobs, mentoring and career advice, we enable the continued growth of our city and improved quality of life for more of our citizens.

For Dominique Island, the result has been life-changing. There are many Dominique Islands in our community. We help ourselves by helping them succeed.

Mike Rawlings is mayor of Dallas. Reach him at mike.rawlings@dallascityhall.com. Chauncy Lennon is head of Workforce Initiatives at JPMorgan Chase. Follow him on Twitter at@ChauncyLennon.