Angela Glover Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, an Oakland-based think tank that researches public policy problems and promotes solutions that have been proven to work, especially for people in low-income communities and people of color. Blackwell believes that job readiness is one of the most important issues of our time, and that California needs to do far more to match its people with the kind of jobs that are going to be available. Increasingly, she says, those jobs are “middle-skill” jobs that require more than a high school education but less than a college degree. HealthyCal editor Daniel Weintraub interviewed Blackwell about this topic. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Why do you think this is such an important issue?
I think the nation does not understand and California has not grasped its reality that the demographic shifts really mean we have to invest in low-income people of color, because they will represent the majority as we go forward. It’s not just going to be a cultural shift for the nation. It means if we are going to have a workforce ready to be productive we’ve got to invest in them now.
What do we need to do now?
We need to understand where the jobs are going to be and what kind of system we need to put in place. The unemployment rates we are seeing now are very disturbing. In California it’s over 12 percent. But the rates of unemployment, when you get away from looking at the average, we are seeing unemployment rates among African Americans of 17 percent, Latinos 16 percent.
As we think about going forward we need an education system that prepares children for college. And we need to think about exactly where the jobs are going to be. So many are in this area we call middle skills. Forty three percent of California jobs opening up in the next five years will be middle skill jobs, requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year-degree.
A computer support specialist takes two to four semesters of education and pays $48,000. An electrician takes five years of apprenticeship and pays $52,000. A vocational nurse, two to three semesters, $47,000. Respiratory therapist, an associate degree, $64,000.
These are the jobs that are going to be very plentiful going forward. They require a good educational grounding. We need to do more. Not only are we not preparing children for college. We are not preparing children for these middle-skill jobs as well. This is a huge problem. Businesses are not able to fill jobs. Our educational system is out of whack with the jobs that are going to be available.
What should we do first?
We need to take advantage of our vast Community College system and make sure community colleges are preparing people for these jobs…We have a mismatch between people needing jobs and the jobs needed to be filled.
We have some nice models around. The PowerPathway program, involving PG&E, is a very interesting approach. PG&E focused directly on their need for workers and then developed a program with community colleges, where they work directly to build the skills and the programs that train people for those skills. They have a relationship with the company in placing people in jobs. PG&E needs to hire more than 1,000 high-wage workers, utility workers, electrical, technical, welders, power technology engineers. These are exactly the kind of jobs people can get trained for. You don’t have to have a college degree. But you have to have a good high school education.
Another really good program is at the Mandela training center in west Oakland, a partnership between community and labor, to be able to train people who have had real challenges. A lot of people have been formerly incarcerated, been high school drop outs, they have been training those workers for the green economy. Since the recession began they have placed 85 percent of their graduates in jobs, and had a 75 percent retention rate. Salaries start at between $12 and $16 an hour.
They are working directly with industry. They are being very clear about what the skills are. They are focusing on people who have been hard to place. High school dropouts and people with felony records.
Some people say this kind of thing is a subsidy for private industry. Do you disagree?
I think that some of the people I just described would not be the first choice for the company. So people say, ‘company, train your own workers.’ I am for that if the company is willing to take some chances on who they are going to train. But the company is not going to do that. If they don’t want to reach out to people who have dropped out. If they are not going to take chances on people who have records. I see nothing wrong with a company getting some benefit from taking a chance on people they would not have taken a chance on otherwise.
Are we getting our money’s worth from job training outside the community colleges?
There is a lot of variation. Some are good, some not so good. What we need to do is be more transparent about things that have worked and invest in things that have worked. It is like public education. We allow things to go on and on when they shouldn’t because they are not making the contribution they should be making.
What should we be doing differently in kindergarten through 12th grade education?
There is often reluctance in minority communities to push for jobs that aren’t college-level jobs. Because people have a bad taste in their mouths from the past when black and Latino children were pushed into vocational education without regard to what their abilities were. Many children who could have been encouraged to go to college were not. I want to emphasize that these middle skill jobs require the same kind of rigorous K-12 education that would be required for college. They have to be able to read, write and compute. K-12 education has to improve if we are going to have the kind of workforce we want for the future.
Half or more of the jobs in California are going to be jobs that are in these middle-skill jobs. Many times people who have gone to college end up being a secretary or an administrative assistant. They didn’t need a college education. If they had invested that same time in middle skill training, they might be in jobs that pay more than they are making now.
We need to make sure that people of color who make up the future have an opportunity to know about these jobs, training for these jobs, get these jobs. They won’t be able to do that without a good educational foundation.
What are the consequences if we don’t do this?
If California doesn’t have a work force for the jobs of the future, those jobs will go elsewhere. Those companies will move into areas where they have a more prepared workforce, or they will figure out a way to make those jobs go offshore.
We will see more of that rather than more investment in the employees of this state. The manufacturers are going to go where there are people who are ready for the jobs. If California doesn’t produce people with those skills, the jobs will find them. They will find them in other states or they will find them outside the United States.
According to the National Commission on Adult Literacy, among 30 OECD countries, the US is the only one where young adults are less educated than the previous generation. In 2020, 39 percent of Californians are expected to be in low-skill jobs, requiring a high school diploma or less. We need to increase the number of adults accessing training. In 2005, only one in four adults in the US with less than a high school education participated in any kind of education or training.
We are not in good shape. We are losing the edge we had as a nation. We’ve lost the edge we had in the state.
When I was growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, California was almost viewed as the promised land. It had a first-rate education system and health system and higher education. In the 1950s, when California made an extraordinary investment in its people, many people came here with poor education, poor job training, high infant mortality. California said we are going to invest in these people. They built a first-rate education system, parks, affordable housing. That investment was in people who were white who had immigrated to California. We need to develop the public will to do it again. This time it is people of color. Their value can help California be as great as it was. We need to do a very thorough analysis of the jobs, the training and the people, and we need to do a match between the jobs, the training and the people. It’s that important.