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Accelerator targets gap between businesses, middle-skill workers

Monday, February 26, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Middle-skill job growth, specifically Austin’s problem of matching longtime residents with jobs in growing industries, is the next target for the Impact Hub social improvement accelerator.

The hub, which operates from sites in North and South Austin, is taking applications through mid-March for its Workforce Development Accelerator, which looks to spin up startup-like groups that can merge private industry needs and public policy efforts to fill well-paying jobs with some of the area’s estimated 99,000 residents who are classified as “working poor.”

Impact Hub will also host a reverse pitch night on Tuesday at its North Lamar Boulevard location that will feature companies from the health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing sectors sharing what challenges they face with respect to hiring and building their workforce.

Those three sectors have been widely identified by area politicos and economic development leaders as having strong growth and ongoing problems finding candidates to fill job openings.

That job crunch is also receiving attention from local government and nonprofit entities, with Workforce Solutions Capital Area launching an effort in June to create 60,000 jobs in those sectors, with the spillover effect of lifting 10,000 residents out of the lower-class income bracket.

Middle-skill jobs are also a priority in the city of Austin’s ongoing overhaul of its economic incentives practices, with a late March unveiling expected to include measures to attract and grow small businesses that tend to deliver jobs that pay close to Austin’s median individual income of $36,708.

This is the second social accelerator for Impact Hub, which is currently working with a cohort of businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to address housing affordability.

Ashley Phillips, managing director of Impact Hub, said participants will be guided to take advantage of the existing efforts to build middle-skill jobs while learning what problems the private industry side faces.

“The key is to hear from employers what they want, but we don’t know what the jobs that are needed will look like in three or four years and what soft skills will be needed,” she said. “You can get government and nonprofits talking and working together but it’s hard to organize businesses within an industry, especially in manufacturing and IT. That makes it tough to say ‘Here’s where we need to put our resources.’”

Phillips said her research thus far suggests that the biggest hurdle to filling middle-skill jobs comes from a lack of ways to match openings with available workers. That could mean accelerator participants will target technology solutions that can serve as better “middlemen” for partnering businesses with candidates.

“There’s not enough places where the two interact with each other, so there’s a lack of proximity,” she said. “If there’s a way for them to be closer together then there’s less of a risk in hiring someone up into a middle-skill role. My gut says the biggest opportunity is in bringing the two sides together.”

Phillips also said an important factor in addressing the workforce issue will be finding ways for the area’s multiple middle-skill jobs initiatives to work in concert with one another rather than moving toward the same goal with vastly different methods.

The rise of automation and robotics is also expected to play a large role in the evolution of middle-skill jobs in the Austin area, which is an issue of interest to program sponsor Digi.City.

Chelsea Collier, founder of Digi.City, said the regional goals for middle-skill job growth in the coming years will need to take into account the thousands of jobs forecast to be eliminated through advanced technology.

“With something like industrial (‘internet of things’), that has a role in managing logistics, and you hear about hundreds of thousands of square feet of warehouses managed all by robots, which means the only jobs are for the handful of people there to keep the robots working,” she said. “If that’s the case, then all the middle-skill jobs that would normally go into a warehouse will disappear, and you’ll need different jobs to fill those in.”

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