Closing the skills gap

Blog post by Christine Ross

Christine Ross, the president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, has 20 years of leadership experience in the business community. She is a visionary coalition builder guiding the Maryland Chamber’s efforts to improve competitiveness, attract and retain talent, grow jobs, engage the community and provide legislative advocacy.

Even during this time of relative prosperity, both in Maryland and throughout the country, a vexing conundrum persists: many young people can’t find jobs, while far too many employers can’t find people with the right entry-level skills.  Closing this skills gap is one of the most important questions that schools and businesses in Maryland must address.

Certainly, a vast majority of education administrators and business leaders in Maryland know the problem that is before us and want to solve it.  The question then begs: “How do we do it?”  The answer is clear: schools from K-12 to higher education, and businesses large and small should be pointed toward one goal: successful and sustainable workforce development.

In addition, state and local government officials must question whether they are promoting the policies needed to meet the needs of workforce development. This can be done simply, by asking their constituents. Then, based on the responses, they should work with industry leaders, education providers, government agencies, and trade associations to identify the highest priorities on which to focus.

The most recent legislative session in Annapolis is an example of how workforce development progress can be achieved when the education sector, business and government work together to satisfy a growing demand for skilled workers.  The Pathways in Technology Early College High School Expansion Act of 2019 (HB440) passed through the Maryland House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Larry Hogan.

Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) is a program in which innovative public schools offer a high school diploma and an industry focused two-year associates degree at no cost. The P-TECH model marries school districts, higher education institutions, and committed business partners. For grades nine through community college, the program incorporates academic, technical and workplace skills to satisfy the growing demand for skilled workers. It also focuses on providing opportunities for students of every background.

While the P-TECH model is on its way to being declared a success in Maryland, we must be honest with ourselves in stating that such a program is now an exception and not the rule. Indeed, most workforce development programs are not integrated with other services.

For example, a common scenario is that responsibility lies in different places: job training lies with the state’s workforce department, child care and food assistance lies with social services, and mentorship support lies with a local philanthropy or non-profit entity. All these components are essential to the learner’s success in completing training, finding a job, and then succeeding at it, yet they often exist in isolated silos.

That’s why I was so excited recently when I learned that Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland and chair of the American Association of Community Colleges board, said everything the colleges do in her sector, whether they train nurses, accountants, poets or musicians, should be considered workforce development.

“Why do community colleges exist?” Kurtinitis told the trade publication Inside Higher Ed. “We don’t just exist for the nobility of purpose. We have a purpose. We have meaning. We are the key to access and substance. But our agenda has to be an economic one.”

In the same way that President Kurtinitis proclaims her education sector’s agenda must be an economic one, so too must the business sector’s agenda be an educational one. Working in concert, schools and businesses must strive toward sustainable workforce development solutions, particularly in underserved communities.  Job training, licensure, apprenticeships and other career and technical education programs can play a key role in Maryland’s ongoing economic renewal.  P-TECH has shown that can happen, now much more must be done.





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