Beyond Entry-Level: Career Advancement Strategies for Low-Skill Workers

Speakers: Patrick Cassidy, Deputy Director, Governors Workforce Investment Board; Raymond Eibel, Business Development Manager, Educational Data Systems, Inc.; Michael Gaines, President & CEO, Maryland Center for Arts & Technology.

Molly Nash, Director of Employment Services, Catholic Charities / St. Jude’s Employment Center

View Patrick Cassidy’s PowerPoint presentation on ‘Moving to a Demand-Driven Workforce System.’

View Raymond Eibel’s PowerPoint presentation on Tiered Employment.

Job placement is just the beginning of a process that can lead to self-sufficiency for low-income employees and reduced turnover costs for employers. Most public workforce funding does not cover post-placement strategies that promote career advancement and increase retention. Yet opportunities exist for philanthropic foundations to work with nonprofit service providers, public agencies, training institutions, and businesses to provide resources and align performance measures to ensure positive long-term results for workers and employers.

A panel of workforce development experts discussed strategies for partnering with employers to move Baltimore’s low-skill workers up the career ladder at a forum sponsored by the Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF) and Open Society Institute-Baltimore on Thursday, June 12 at the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business.

Patrick Cassidy began by providing information on Maryland’s current workforce landscape. From 1990 to 2000, the State experienced a 16 percent decrease in the number of residents with less than a high school diploma and 55 percent of high school graduates attend college, indicating that education levels of rising. At the same time, however, the number of individuals in poverty increased by 14 percent during the same period.

In terms of workforce demand, Maryland’s services, construction, and retail sectors are the areas with the most projected job growth. The top five fastest growing occupations, or 48 percent of the projected annual openings, are in office and administrative support, sales, food preparation and service, management positions, transportation, and materials handling. While 28 percent of these openings require a Bachelors degree, 63 percent only require on-the-job training. Thus there is an opportunity for service providers to meet employer needs and help them with their bottom line.

Mr. Cassidy went on to speak of the need for a demand-driven workforce development system in which “placement is only the beginning,” and where service providers work closely with employers and training institutions to create supportive work environments so that incumbent workers can advance in their careers. In order to achieve this, employers need workforce services from committed intermediaries that view business as the customer. He said that nonprofits are well placed to serve in this capacity, because of their competence in working with “hard to serve” populations, and because they are able to collaborate with each other in ways that are unavailable to for-profit companies.

Raymond Eibel described the ‘tiered employment’ model used by Educational Data Systems, Inc. (EDSI) in Philadelphia, where EDSI holds the city’s Welfare-to-Work contract.

Tiered employment is an employer-driven strategy that uses skills training and assessment tools to help job seekers and incumbent workers move up the career ladder. The model connects participants with intensive job readiness and occupational skills training during a transitional period of employment in a low-skill, entry-level position. At the end of that period, provided they performed satisfactorily in the first-tier position, participants move to a higher-skill, higher paying position with another company, possibly within a different sector, that offers more career growth and earning potential. When tier one employees are ready to advance to the second tier, their employers complete an occupational skills survey that describes the skills the employees have acquired during their tenure in the first tier.

EDSI uses an automated, web-based system to connect program participants to employers. Job developers and employment representatives facilitate the match. Employers are able to post jobs online and view information on available candidates and their status, while employees can perform customized searches for the jobs that are most appropriate for them. This system facilitates individual career development by providing employees with resources and information based upon their individual career goals. Their career goals, skills, work history, and profile are all entered and tracked in the database.

Increased retention is critical to employers. Employees who remain for a period of six months to one year in tier one provide an increased retention rate for those employers. Employer participation is crucial to the success of a tiered employment program. As a result of this approach, job seekers, many of whom have little or no experience with career counseling or goal-setting, are motivated to stop making lateral moves from job to job with no hope of advancement.

Mr. Eibel emphasized that these job seekers constitute a viable workforce and should not be regarded as merely a “hard to serve” population. The challenge, he said, is helping these individuals develop their skills, goals, and work habits in order to meet employers’ needs and their own.

Michael Gaines described the work of the Maryland Center for Arts and Technology (MCAT), a Baltimore-based customized training firm that over the past three years has placed approximately 300 program participants in jobs that provide decent wages and benefits. The goal of MCAT is to “close the gap between the individual who lacks skills and available jobs.”

Mr. Gaines said that career advancement strategies for low-skill workers are necessary for several reasons. At the most basic level, models such as customized training and tiered employment provide workers with the opportunity for personal and career growth by helping them build on past skills and experiences. As they advance in the workforce, they are better able to economically sustain themselves and their families. This in turn has a positive influence on communities and regions, because financially stable families are more likely to purchase homes and contribute to their local economy, and their children are more likely to remain in school.

In order to effect these positive changes, nonprofit workforce development and training providers must become more knowledgeable about the regional economy and the industries with which they work. Customized training is an employer-driven process whose end result is workers that are adequately trained and ready to stay on the job. Mr. Gaines said that “consolidation of the provider network” may be necessary to respond to changes in the economy. Using this market approach, service providers will either increase their performance and outcomes, or risk losing market shares to those that do.

At the same time, he added, employers should bear some of the costs of receiving the products [i.e. trained workers] that providers offer them. It is important for businesses to invest in the training of their employees.

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