Tomorrow, on Labor Day, I'm going to be thinking of Teresa Zera Pilson, a one-time cafeteria worker who is now assisting surgeons performing laparoscopic surgery at a Baltimore hospital. And I'm going to be wondering: Why don't we have more job training programs like the one that helped her improve her job and her life? And are we doing all we can to make sure there are enough good jobs for people like her?
A single parent for years, Pilson started working at Mercy Medical Center soon after high school. She worked as a cafeteria worker, a housekeeper and a pharmacy courier. Three years ago, she signed up for a pilot program called STEP (Skills-Based Training for Employment Promotion). Once she was part of STEP, Mercy allowed Pilson to earn her regular salary while giving her time off to attend classes. After a year studying to be a surgical technician, she got a job preparing operating rooms for surgery. Her pay increased, and she hasn't missed a day of work in three years. "I love laparoscopic surgery!" Pilson says.
A happy ending -- but not for everyone. For fiscal year 2005, the STEP program has been discontinued.
There are, of course, many ways to train workers for better jobs. But on this Labor Day, Pilson's story makes me ask: Do we have enough effective job training programs? Can we assure that all workers receive fair rewards for their work?
Unfortunately, I think the answer is "No."
The STEP program shows that training can work, and that if you pay attention to what employers need, you can match workers with modest skills to decent jobs. The Maryland legislature created STEP in 1999, bringing business and government together to invest in upgrading the skills of entry-level, low-wage workers to prepare them for better-paying jobs that had a critical shortage of workers.
Pilson was one of several hundred Marylanders who benefited from STEP, combining work with study for higher-level jobs, chiefly in health care. The program was aimed at people with children, to help them provide for their families, and at its peak it trained 250 people in one year.
Employers and workers alike were enthusiastic. It was a model for the nation, and it helped Pilson, who was featured as a success story in a report from the Governor's Workforce Investment Board (GWIB), which sets policy and oversees workforce development in Maryland.
She wasn't the only one. Kent Marshall, 48, was another STEP success story. He had held a variety of jobs as a welder, mechanic and rehabilitation aide. He convinced himself that he wasn't too old to learn something new and enrolled in STEP's surgical technician program, earning straight A's. Now he assists surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center and provides much better for his family. "Every time I reach one goal," Marshall said when he finished the course, "the horizon changes for me."
Eric McNeil, a 25-year-old high school graduate, had a job as a clerk in the Johns Hopkins Hospital pharmacy. He loved kids, and it was troubling for him to see sick children when he delivered medicines to the pediatrics ward. Through STEP, he trained to be a pharmacy technician, learning how each drug saves lives. Now he feels he can help the sick. His paycheck is bigger, and McNeil says his own studying has inspired his young daughter to do well in school.
Ron Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System in Baltimore, called the program a good business investment. The state paid half the cost of the training in job categories that were hard to fill, and employers paid the other half. It made workers "realize that we thought enough of them to invest in them," Peterson said, "and it helps our community grow, because skill enhancement is key if we're going to help more and more people out of their employment ruts."
Maryland exemplifies the problem with jobs around the nation. We don't have enough jobs or enough good jobs -- half of all the jobs in the Baltimore region, for example, are low skill and low wage. And we're not doing enough to train workers for better jobs in areas of shortages.
STEP was meant to address part of the problem. After the Maryland General Assembly authorized STEP with a $1 million appropriation, GWIB awarded the first training grants to Montgomery County and Baltimore City, and a planning grant to Prince George's County. In addition to sharing the costs, participating employers contributed to the design and content of the courses, carved out time during their employees' workweek for training and benefited from employees trained for essential, hard-to-fill jobs.
Participants were paid as they worked and studied. STEP also paid for training for some newly unemployed workers. They received help with transportation and child care, and upon completion were able to take a major step up in wages and career advancement. In Baltimore, the wages of STEP participants that had been in the range of $7 to $10 an hour ($14,000 to $20,000 a year for full-time work) increased on average by $5,800 per year, and in Montgomery County the average annual increase was $2,400, a real boost for incomes below the federal poverty level.
STEP filled an important niche.
A new program, Maryland Business Works, similarly awards matching grants to businesses in the health care industry to train their employees, but it lacks an important element of STEP -- there is no requirement that the funds must be used to help low-wage workers upgrade their skills and their incomes.
In the current national employment landscape, vast differences exist side-by-side, which was emphasized by Census Bureau data issued at the end of August. The United States had 1.3 million more poor people in 2003 than the year before, and the gap widened between households at the lowest 20 percent and highest 20 percent of income levels. For the 40 percent of the adult population that has no education beyond high school, the prospects for a living wage and career advancement are bleak.
Nationwide, there are mismatches between job openings and job seekers. The official unemployment rate is 5.5 percent, but the actual jobless rate is at least twice that size. Yet employers are experiencing serious shortages of skilled workers -- of engineers, machinists, information technology workers, nurses and auto mechanics.
Some regions even have shortages of reliable unskilled workers. In metropolitan areas with limited public transportation, the suburbs have unfilled jobs that workers can't get to, while the center city has job seekers who have no cars. Thus we have skills and education gaps, distance and transportation gaps, and a gap between the numbers of jobs and job seekers.
Many find themselves caught in a bottleneck. There are relatively few jobs a rung up from the bottom, such as those for refrigeration mechanics or hairdressers. Though many vocational or associate degree programs offer training for these jobs, there aren't enough of them to employ even half of the low-skill workforce.
A 2003 study by Maryland's Job Opportunities Task Force, which advocates on issues relating to economic opportunities for low-skill, low-income people, projected 42,820 annual job openings in the Baltimore region through 2006 for all levels of skill and education.
Most of them -- 29,931 openings -- are for low-skill jobs; only 3,726 require intermediate skills and 9,163 require a baccalaureate degree or higher. In 2000 in the region, 53,284 of 60,031 job seekers were low-skilled. They had little incentive to train for the next rung up -- where only 3,726 jobs were available.
How can we fulfill the promise of Labor Day? How can we create enough jobs so that everyone who wants to work can work? How can we ensure that wages for full-time, year-round work are sufficient for a minimum decent standard of living?
For a start, we should invest in job programs that are tailored to the needs of employers and effectively prepare their participants for employment. We should make sure that health care, child care and housing subsidies, food stamps and income tax credits are adequate and accessible. We should create public service jobs.
Unemployment, underemployment and poverty are expensive ills for communities to sustain. This Labor Day, we should promise thousands of struggling workers that we will do for them what we did for Teresa Zera Pilson, Kent Marshall and Eric McNeil. We will train them for jobs that offer decent prospects, and we will work to create more and better jobs.
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