Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Seattle's Forgotten Middle......

A lot of attention these days is being paid to the needs of research universities and the highest paying jobs at high tech and biotechnology companies. But the vast majority of workers in the Seattle region have worked in middle skills job with family wages and good benefits. These are the folks that have been hit the hardest by the deep recession and the folks whose wage recovery is the key to our recovery. And there simply isn’t going to be a recovery if these hard working people are unable to get the skills that are required by the jobs that are growing as the economy begins to slowly lift off.

The vast majority of jobs in the Seattle area are skilled professional and technical positions that range from health care on First Hill and throughout the city to aerospace, construction and manufacturing jobs in SODO and the Duwamish, and to office occupations such as accounting and office management in the city’s big downtown business and financial service industries.

The jobs we lost going into the recession are not the same ones that are going to get us out of it. Nobody has been hit harder by the great recession than the middle wage skilled workers in these companies and organizations. People such as John Woeck, for instance, who worked for seven years as an electrician just as his wife lost her job of 14 years, exhausted his savings, and was almost out of unemployment funding to support their three children. Vinita Vigil, enrolled at Seattle Central Community College, worked for a digital graphics company before she was laid off. She was the primary source of income for her family of five, and she was forced to sell her house.

One of the most distressing features about today’s recession is that Seattle has thousands of job openings at the same time it has high unemployment. Economists say this is because the recession accelerated the decline of some industries, such as housing construction, at the same that that others requiring far different skills, including health care, emerged stronger. Some economists predict that this disconnect is likely to grow as the economy continues to develop jobs that require specialized skills. And the difference for those who have lost their jobs could be fine-tuning of their skills in a job training program that takes six months to two years to complete.

Construction, real estate, and financial service workers have seen jobs with their expertise disappear, while skilled work in health care, accounting, fashion design and I-T remain unfilled. A State’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board 2010 survey of employers indicated that the vast majority of these job openings require a post-secondary vocational certificate or degree. The survey indicated that 62% of employers hired people and 26% or 10,500 firms in King County were unable to find skilled employees.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The Community and Technical College Worker Retraining Program was designed to get people who lost their jobs in declining occupations back to work in new and growing fields. Even in the depth of the recessions, three out of four graduates were able to find work within 6 months of completing their programs.

John Woeck retrained from work as an electrician in the housing industry to job in the heating, air-conditioning and ventilation industry. He was also able to convince his employer to hire two of his classmates. Vinita Vigil was able to find work in the ….. and now has an income to support her family.

This year, in order to meet record demand from individuals and families such as the Woecks and Vigils, the state legislature bumped up funding for the program to allow the program to serve more 14,000 unemployed individuals across the state. However, the funding was for one year only and on July 1, the program will be forced to cut services nearly in half leaving thousands of unemployed workers stranded midway through their programs. This will leave thousands of jobs unfilled and perhaps create a bottleneck in the economic recovery of our region.