Montgomery County’s focus on sending students to four-year colleges and universities may be a misguided attempt to keep jobs and workers in the county, according to a panel of economic and workforce development experts.
The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday met with the panel for a discussion about the future of Montgomery County's workforce and job opportunities. Responding to the points of , the panel told the council that the dynamic of the nation’s economy is changing. Pushing students to four-year college and beyond may not meet the needs of the county’s future employers, while encouraging mid-level opportunities and job training would be more successful.
“Forty percent of the workforce of the future will only need a two-year higher education and technical skills,” Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac reminded the council. “The issue for us is what are we doing to prepare our workforce with those skills that they need?”
Montgomery County can prepare for this future if it aims workforce development efforts toward middle-level workers and middle-level positions, according to Harry Holzer, former chief economist for the Department of Labor and current professor of public policy at Georgetown University.
“You have a sense that employers, more in some sectors than others, have difficulty finding skilled workers,” Holzer said. Though it may seem counter-intuitive compared to the high unemployment rates countrywide, Holzer said that many employers are looking for “a particular set of skills in a particular niche” that they just can’t find in the current labor market. For Montgomery County this means jobs in the service industries of health care, information technology and retail.
“It’s important to have a workforce plan that aims for the middle as well as the top,” Holzer said. “As the baby boomers retire, the skills gap will widen and you’ll see it at the middle-level jobs as well as the high end.”
The key is educating current students about the opportunities that do exist and connecting them with the type of education to prepare them for those jobs, something that the education system nationally hasn’t been very successful at doing. High school dropout rates, and high remedial and non-completion rates in community college contribute to having an unprepared workforce, but getting the education system and employeers to work together would help, Holzer said.
Multiple corporations and community colleges are working to fill this need by partnering in various training programs. Companies like The GAP and McDonalds have partnered with community colleges across the nation to provide scholarships, training and job opportunities for individuals interested in certain sector jobs, according to Karen Elzey, director of Skills for America’s Future, a nonprofit that coordinates partnerships between businesses and schools.
“You can have this training and it’s valuable not just to pursue a career in The GAP, but to pursue other areas of retail,” Elzey said. “These are transferable skills.”
currently partners with Discovery Communications based out of Silver Spring to provide this sort of skills training for the communications industries. The college also offers opportunities for apprenticeships with the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, National Capital Chapter; the Independent Electrical Contractors, Chesapeake; and the Steamfitters Union, Local 602. Apprenticeship programs allow students to work full time in their field of study, earn a salary and receive training on the job and in their classes, according to Dr. DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College.
“This county [for a long time] disparaged any work that didn’t need a four-year college degree, and now we find ourselves needing a lot of people for work that doesn’t require four-year college degrees,” said Councilmember Marc Elrich (D- At large) of Takoma Park after the presentation. “We find ourselves in correction mode and I hope we can make the correction quickly.”
What direction do you think the county should take to ensure future economic success? Tell us in the comments.