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With another Labor Day behind us, we take a closer look at the nation’s evolving workplace. The U.S. recently celebrated a 16-year low unemployment rate of 4.4 percent. Yet, employers are still looking to fill a record-breaking 6.2 million open jobs.
So with millions of job opportunities still available, where are the qualified workers? And what skills do workers need to compete for current and future employment?
America’s workforce has changed significantly since the nation celebrated its first Labor Day in 1894. Through recent years, job growth in once dominant industries such as manufacturing and farming declined, as advances in technology and a more competitive global economy have fueled a demand for more skilled labor.
By 2024, more than 163.8 million people are expected to participate in the labor force, according to federal data. Jobs requiring special training and skills such as wind turbine service technicians will have the fastest growth. Meanwhile, other service-focused jobs in healthcare and retail are expected to add the most jobs over the next decade.
But for many employers, finding qualified workers to meet both current and future work demands has become a bigger challenge. A growing number of formerly labor-intensive positions such as factory and logistics jobs now demand more education, technical know-how or specialized skills. And many workers, including some previously laid off from manufacturing jobs, lack the more specific qualifications needed to compete.
“There are significant worker shortages right now in some manufacturing industries, particularly high-tech manufacturing and construction, because of shortages of skilled workers,” said Gus Faucher, PNC chief economist. “Some of that demand is being filled with immigrants, but a complementary solution would be to produce more skilled workers, such as engineers, in the United States.”
Companies with the greatest demand for workers are trying a range of worker training efforts, including apprenticeships and on-the job training programs, to attract and retain qualified workers.
Some of the hardest jobs for Sydney Raine to fill are for companies in high-demand and high-growth industries such as healthcare, trucking and manufacturing. He’s president of Southwest Alabama Partnership for Training and Employment (SWAPTE), a regional workforce development agency covering nine counties in Alabama’s Gulf Coast region.
Raine has been at the forefront of workforce development for years, speaking often about the need for increased collaboration among workforce agencies and employers.
“Workforce development is all about building relationships and partnerships with the business community, the clients we serve and the trainers that provide the service we are supporting,” said Raine. “We spend a lot of time talking to and learning about what businesses are looking for so that we can fund the right training to meet the business community’s needs.”
Based on employer feedback in recent years, the agency has focused more on teaching “soft skills” to its younger clients, including high school juniors and seniors who participate in the agency’s summer internship program.
Funded in part by PNC’s Community Development Banking team, the eight-week internships place 50 students with local employers for worker training three days a week. For the remaining two days, students learn skills such as conflict resolution, critical thinking, dressing for success, and the importance of a healthy drug-free lifestyle.
Much like the agency’s other programs for older adults, many of them dislocated and long-term unemployed clients, SWAPTE designed the summer internship programs to create a pipeline of skilled new hires for the area’s diverse industries.
At 5.5%, the Mobile metro area has one of the highest unemployment rates in Alabama. A general lack of understanding about training opportunities has hurt the region’s employment rate, particularly among students deciding on a career.
“There’s a lot of kids in the high school career academies that meet our eligibility requirements, but they may not be prepared for four years of college,” said Raine. “We say go to a two-year college to get prepared, and we may be able to provide financial education assistance."
“A lot of students don’t find out about our resources until it’s too late, usually when they’ve failed after their first semester at [a four year] college, and then they are back home, frustrated.”
While the agency funds a few multi-year apprenticeships, it focuses primarily on shorter-term solutions for high-demand industries. In addition to offering financial assistance for technical and trade school training, SWAPTE provides “On the Job Training” (OJT) subsidies to help companies fill worker shortages, particularly in high-growth industries.
Under the OJT program, employers commit to hire and provide technical training to SWAPTE clients that range from three months to 26 weeks. SWAPTE reimburses participating companies up to 50 percent of wages for clients in the work-training program. Currently, the agency works with about 100 companies to help offset the cost of hiring and training OJT workers.
After SWAPTE client Anita Alexander moved from Brooklyn to live closer to her elderly mother in Mobile, she quickly found herself without a job. Although she’d worked as a licensed practicing nurse in her hometown, she ran into road blocks looking for employment as a nurse in Mobile.
“I was desperately looking for employment as an LPN, but my options seemed limited,” Alexander said. “Tons of resumes and applications submitted and no call backs.” A few months later and still unemployed, Alexander enrolled in SWAPTE’s OJT program. Within two weeks of interviewing with a local company, she started training and picked up some new skills.
Through the OJT program, Alexander works for a nonprofit residential home, where she’s getting hands-on experience. Alexander said she wants to become a registered nurse. She’s happy that the OJT has put her on the fast track toward her goal.
“It’s not just nursing, we are one team and one happy family,” Alexander notes. “Not only do I provide advanced nursing services like dispensing meds, I get to hang out with the residents, provide TLC and on occasion paint fingernails at the residents’ request.”
By 2024, the Alabama Department of Labor predicts nurse practitioners will be one of fastest growing and highest demand occupations in the region, according to state labor data. Customer service and operations managers round out the top three spots in the region’s ranking of highest demand jobs.
Global retailers Amazon and Walmart recently joined Mobile’s growing list of employers competing for operations and customer service workers. Attracted to Mobile’s ports, large workforce, and easy interstate access, the two companies confirmed plans to hire hundreds of operations, transportation and service workers to staff future distribution hubs in the metro area.
Some of the hourly positions will start full-time workers at $16.50 and salaried employees at $50,000. For comparison sake, last year transportation and warehouse workers in the area averaged $46,000 a year, according to state data.
Economists like Faucher note that business investment in technology, training and other employee resources can often increase worker productivity. But Raine notes some issues, such as a reluctance to learn technical and soft skills requirements, make it harder for companies to invest in workers up front.
In response, SWAPTE and its partner agencies have stepped up joint efforts to counsel clients on common concerns including interpersonal skills, social skills and conflict resolution in the workplace. Over the next decade, Raine’s expects to train an even larger pool of workers with the agency’s recent expansion into eight more counties.
“On-the-job training will continue to play an important role in getting qualified workers into high-demand jobs in healthcare, maritime, transportation and manufacturing,” said Raine. “But we’re also investing more in training and scholarships to put more qualified adults and dislocated workers in our two-year and four-year college systems.”
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