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  ·   By Jo Kwong, Star Telegram   ·  Link to Article

Wanted: Employees for middle-skills jobs

Dallas-Fort Worth is a beacon for economic growth with a surging population, low unemployment rate, and job growth that far exceeds the national average. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the DFW region added 96,000 jobs between February 2017 and February 2018, outpacing the national increase by more than a full percentage point. And yet DFW’s growing and ever-evolving economy highlights the increasing concern over the middle-skills jobs gap.
 
According to the National Skills Coalition, middle-skills jobs (which require more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree) accounted for 56 percent of the Texas labor market in 2015, yet only 42 percent of the workforce was trained at that level. Earlier this month, Communities Foundation of Texas released an economic opportunity assessment report for Dallas, further highlighting the barriers to skills training and economic opportunity many under-resourced Texans face, particularly people of color.
 
"While we have many resources as a community, we also face many obstacles that limit the upward mobility of our neighborhoods," said Sarah Cotton Nelson, chief philanthropy officer with Communities Foundation of Texas.
 
Take Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, whose unabashed goal is to end poverty. In 2013, CCFW launched Stay the Course in partnership with Tarrant County College and the University of Notre Dame’s Lab for Economic Opportunity. The program seeks to increase community college graduation rates among low-income and new-to-college students by providing intensive coaching and mentorship. Three years in, the preliminary analysis revealed that its students’ persistence rate was double that of a separate control group, with female participants 31.5 percent more likely to stay in school.
 
Many charities are adopting a career pathways approach, or programs directly integrating technical education, life skills training, and job instruction to create a pathway to employability. Serve West Dallas has assembled a collaboration of 13 groups representing business, education, city government and social service organizations to develop the Middle-Skills Career Pathways in Healthcare initiative. The program provides case management, integrated services, and on-going mentor assistance for individuals through multiple years, ultimately giving them a pathway to employment paying on average 35 percent more than the region’s living wage.
 
Dallas has also seen remarkable growth in the high-tech industry, which likely served as one reason for the city’s selection as an expansion site for Per Scholas, a nonprofit that provides free technology education, job training, and career development opportunities to people in underserved communities. The Dallas site offers an 8-week job training course called IT-Ready. According to Per Scholas, 85 percent of participants graduate with industry certifications, and 75 percent of its graduates land jobs.
 
These are only a few of the organizations making an impact — and their work along with many other DFW charities serving middle-skills employees is catching the attention of national funders. In May, The Philanthropy Roundtable will assemble a slate of innovators at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas spanning philanthropic, manufacturing, nonprofit, and educational institutions to discuss how private philanthropy can equip and grow the workforce in the age of automation.
 
As we grapple as a nation with how to address the middle-skills jobs gap in the age of automation, private philanthropy is leading the way in implementing innovative strategies helping scores of Americans better their economic standing. In this aspect, DFW will not only serve as a host for a national philanthropic gathering, it will also serve as the model from which we will learn.
 
Jo Kwong is the director of economic opportunity programs at The Philanthropy Roundtable.