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‘Middle skill’ workforce plan aims to stabilize area’s poor, vulnerable residents

Friday, June 2, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin and Travis County leaders’ focus on growing the region’s middle-class economy was spotlighted Thursday with the announcement of a multiyear effort to train local workers for a growing demand for so-called “middle skill” jobs.

The release of the Master Community Workforce Plan, led in large part by the Workforce Solutions Capital Area nonprofit, came with appearances by Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Both officials have taken a highly visible role in championing plans to improve the quality of life for Central Texas residents they said are often stuck in “starter jobs” that often barely pay above the poverty line.

The plan looks to create 60,000 middle skill jobs – defined generally as those requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree – in three sectors: health care, information technology and skilled trades or advanced manufacturing. A complementary goal would see 10,000 residents lifted out of a lower-class income bracket and able to begin a career that would support a family.

The event took place inside a new multistory warehouse space in North Austin operated by Dynamic Manufacturing Solutions LLC, which provides machining and other industrial services to clients in a number of industries. Pointing to the need for Workforce Solutions, Austin Community College and other local institutions to pump up job training efforts, company president Robb Misso said the lack of trained workers in the Austin area is the biggest obstacle Dynamic Manufacturing Solutions faces, and that he’s regularly turning down work because he lacks the needed manpower.

Adler, who has made middle-class uplift a central goal of a pending update of the city’s economic incentives program and a just-begun review of its economic development policy, said employers, government leaders and other institutions are coming together to use existing federal and state workforce training dollars and refocus them on areas expected to have strong demand for years to come.

“Employers in our region, with the low unemployment we have, are not finding the labor they need and having to import labor from outside the city, and that exacerbates the problems with growth that we’re having in our city,” Adler told the Austin Monitor. “Employers are realizing it’d be less expensive for them to engage in training in this area than to recruit from elsewhere, and with the workers they train here they tend to have better retention.”

He added that a review of city programs is expected to see how they align with the new 83-page plan, and said City Council should support efforts to better use the training resources already in place.

With the city embarking on an areawide transit corridor improvement plan funded by $720 million approved by voters last year, Adler said the city has a chance to help train a large cohort of city residents in skilled trades needed to complete the various construction and other projects.

Eckhardt, who framed the program with the idea of creating a “common wealth” of Austin, told the Monitor that Workforce Solutions and other local groups can take on some of the human resources and skill development needs that employers might not have the ability to implement themselves.

Doing that, she said, will keep Austin’s unemployment rate low while improving the quality of life for as much as one-third of the local population having trouble making ends meet.

“Our crime rate is very low in compared to other cities our size because so many people are working and our employment rate is really high,” she said. “Our people are busy and working during the daytime hours, but up to a third are occupied with starter jobs even though they’re not at the starter point in their lives and need to be able to move on.”

Photo by Luke Elliot [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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