New study documents challenges facing the unemployed and calls for new funding and more effective workforce training

BALTIMORE (June 2, 2014) – A significant number of job seekers in the Baltimore region lack necessary workplace skills and must overcome multiple and complex challenges to find work, ranging from inadequate transportation to a criminal record – according to a new study from the Opportunity Collaborative.

The result is that 20.4 percent of adults in the region with less than a high school diploma are unemployed – compared to a 9.7 percent overall unemployment rate for the region. Three out of five job seekers reported they could not find a job paying a family-sustaining wage in the region, the study found.

Without action, the labor market will become even more challenging for people with fewer skills and more barriers to work. The study projects that 53 percent of new jobs being created by 2020 will require, at minimum, more than a high school diploma.

The study found that even while lower-skilled job seekers are facing more challenges to landing good jobs, funding for workforce development is declining. In Baltimore City, for example, key federal funding has fallen by more than half over the past decade.

Among its recommendations, the study calls for increased funding for training and basic adult educational programs, improved public transportation to link low-income areas with employers and the development of new “pathways” to help lower-skilled job seekers find jobs and advance in family-supporting careers.

“This study should serve as a wake-up call that we are leaving many people in the region out when it comes to jobs that can support a family,” said Michael Kelly, director of the Opportunity Collaborative, a regional public-private planning initiative housed within the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. “While the Baltimore regional economy overall is strong, there are many lower-skilled people who want to work and support their families but have few if any opportunities to find a job to do that.”

The study was based on a review of literature, interviews with workforce development managers and a survey of more than 1,000 active job seekers in the region. The study found:

  • 62 percent of job seekers reported they are unable to find a job that offers a living wage – one that is high enough to support a family.
  • 41 percent of job seekers indicated they have been laid off from a job and need new skills, and 49 percent indicated that the cost of obtaining the training or education they need is too high.
  • 21 percent of job seekers said their criminal record was a barrier to getting work.
  • 25 percent of job seekers indicated they cannot get to jobs using public transportation and 23 percent faced difficulties finding permanent housing.
  • 23 percent of job seekers reported that they lack a driver’s license – a requirement in construction, transportation and other sectors.

Overall, 82 percent of job seekers reported facing at least three barriers to employment – such as inadequate skills, a criminal record, or a lack of funds to pay for transportation or job clothes – and 55 percent reported they are dealing with six or more barriers.

There are stark disparities in workforce access between blacks and whites, the study found.

While African Americans represent 28 percent of the region’s working-age population, they account for 49 percent of all unemployed people. Further, the survey results showed that African Americans encounter almost every barrier at a higher rate than whites.  The study finds that companies often fail to recruit minorities and that African Americans often lack mentoring networks and social resources that can be instrumental in finding jobs.

The study was prepared by RDA Global Inc., with funding from the Opportunity Collaborative. (The full study can be found here.)

The study explores the challenges transit-dependent residents face in accessing an increasingly decentralized job market. For residents of the Cherry Hill neighborhood in south Baltimore, for example, it takes more than 75 minutes to travel via public transit to nearby job centers like BWI Airport. And Cherry Hill residents can reach only 18 percent of the region’s jobs using public transit, with even fewer accessible in such sectors as construction, manufacturing, or transportation that tend to have better-paying jobs.

The study calls for major changes in the region’s approach to workforce development including steps to:

  • Implement workforce strategies focused on industry sectors that are growing; create “pathways” for lower-skilled workers to build skills and move into jobs and careers that can support a family.
  • Increase the availability of Adult Basic Education and GED preparation courses and strengthen such programs to improve completion rates.
  • Improve public transportation between low-income neighborhoods and high-growth job centers.
  • Eliminate unconscious and implicit biases and perceptions of people of color that support structural racism in the workplace and in communities.
  • Increase funding for industry and workforce development organizations.

“Baltimore’s barriers to employment opportunities are rooted in deep, structural issues that do not change easily,” the study concludes. “Real change with these issues will not come without focused leadership, alignment of action plans, and increased resources.”

The study documented that in Baltimore City, funding from the federal Workforce Investment Act, which pays for the majority of services provided through the city’s Employment One-Stop Centers, declined by 52 percent between 2002 and 2012 – from $13.7 million to $6.6 million.

The Opportunity Collaborative is a consortium made up of local governments, state agencies, universities and nonprofits that is developing regional plans for key issues, including sustainable development, housing and workforce development. The collaborative received major funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; its work is coordinated by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

>>Download the full Barriers to Employment Opportunity report

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