It’s not possible in today’s environment to talk about economic growth without addressing an increasingly large skills gap that limits the growth of our companies and the income of our region’s employees.

That skills gap is not caused by a lack of motivation. Job seekers stuck in low wage jobs often work hours of overtime (when available) or hold down two or more jobs just to make ends meet. This leaves little time and scarce financial capacity to seek the training and education necessary to break the low-wage job cycle.

“Good jobs” that pay middle-class wages, provide benefits and have growth opportunities do exist. They often, however, require skills beyond high school.

In Greater Akron, we have experienced an extraordinarily significant shift to a digital economy. From 2002 to 2016, the growth in the level of digital skills required for the average job in our region increased by 18% — just five other metro areas in the U.S. reported higher growth in jobs requiring digital skills than Akron/Summit County. Beyond the tech industry itself, this acceleration of digital skills is occurring in broader industries such as manufacturing and health care. Because we are not keeping pace in skill development, even with increased digitization, the number of people employed in these mid-tech, middle-skills jobs in our region is declining.

This is due to skills — not demand. Demand for employees with digital skills is higher than ever in our region.

It’s not that skills training is not available. In fact, nationally lauded boot camps, high quality community college certificate programs and other up-skilling opportunities exist in Northeast Ohio. These programs meet business and industry needs and can be completed in relatively short time-frames (weeks and months), but they are not typically covered by federal Pell Grants.

The Pell Grant program is the biggest source of college funding in the nation and world. It has provided financial aid and college access to the neediest students for decades. However, the Pell Grant program was designed for the traditional two- or four-year college program, not the short-term credit and noncredit programs needed to up-skill today’s workforce and meet the needs of today’s employers.

According to Team NEO, a regional economic development organization, by 2020, 65% of Ohio jobs that pay $23 per hour (a family-sustaining wage) will require applicants to have college degrees or career training certificates. As of May 2018, 54% of adults in Northeast Ohio met the requirements for those jobs. That’s the gap we need to address.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman has recently introduced the JOBS Act. I was among a group of business and community leaders who learned firsthand about the legislation from the senator during his visit to Stark State College a few months ago. This bipartisan legislation is crucial to closing the skills gap that exists by making federal Pell Grants available for shorter-term, quality education and training programs.

Enabling this source of funding can provide access to life-changing opportunities for adults willing to enroll in and complete the training for mid-tech, middle-skills jobs.

Companies also can play a role in reducing the skills gap by improving how they “map” what skills are needed to most effectively drive the direction of skills training, plus ensure that job applicants understand the minimum qualifications so they can efficiently seek out appropriate training. Beyond legislation, success for these adults will require hard work and a desire to invest in themselves to get to the next level of opportunity — but the JOBS Act makes critical training more viable for Greater Akron’s incumbent workers.

The Greater Akron Chamber strongly encourages Congress to act on this legislation to create more opportunities, more skills and more growth for Greater Akron.

 

Millard is the president and chief executive of the Greater Akron Chamber.