(Photo by Catherine Sontag)
In a pandemic, each day is bringing a reminder that we’re in an economic shock alongside a health crisis.
Take Friday. With the new jobs report from the federal government, it’s official: The new coronavirus has brought the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression as it spiked to 14.7%. In Maryland, unemployment filings also jumped last week, with 65,262 new claims filed the week ending May 2.
And while stay-at-home orders and social distancing that will eventually be relaxed are no doubt wreaking havoc, that reopening likely won’t bring jobs back right away, and they could come back in fewer numbers. And it is playing out against long-term trends like digital transformation, retail’s move online and automation of industries that could now only be accelerated.
“All of those things that people have been talking about for years happened overnight,” said Jacob Hsu, CEO of Baltimore-based workforce data science company Catalyte. In this scenario, he said, there are “winners and losers,” with a big group in the latter category.
Yet even in this stark landscape, some kinds of jobs are trending up and don’t appear to be slowing down, Hsu said. Some, like those in software engineering and cybersecurity, were already trending up and that’s continuing. The pandemic is also leading to new kinds of jobs, like contact tracers and community health workers.
It could present opportunity for those out of work — and this week, Catalyte said it is leading a group of partners from businesses, training and government to launch an exchange to help folks who are out of work gain the skills to move into those roles.
RetrainAmerica is starting off in Maryland with a group of partners from Baltimore, and plans are already in the works to expand to more states. It provides info about training and apprenticeship opportunities. For businesses, it provides connection to the candidates.
"If there was ever a time to try to make this work, this was the time to do it."
Following the principles Catalyte has applied to assemble teams of software engineers from nontraditional backgrounds that work with its corporate clients, the exchange will seek to present opportunities for people who are unemployed to get retrained that doesn’t take background or education level into account. In October, it launched a reskilling platform called Odyssey that allows companies to apply Catalyte’s approach to reskilling local workers. Now, Hsu said it has opened up that framework to more kinds of roles.
In the case of retraining, Hsu said the key is to match the skills taught with roles that are needed: “Its really driven by the needs of employers as opposed to what you want to go study in school. It’s really driven by demand in the market,” he said.
That could be the software engineers or technologists sought by Catalyte and other local tech firms who are initial partners like downtown digital services firm Fearless, Locust Point-based software and marketing consultancy Mindgrub and Highlandtown-based personality data company Traitify. It could be the City of Baltimore seeking contact tracers, or cybersecurity consulting firm GRIMM seeking security engineers. Other initial partners from Baltimore include utility company Exelon, health insurer CareFirst, investment management firm Brown Advisory, Fells Point-based healthcare analytics company Protenus, and social innovation and talent nonprofit Baltimore Corps.
Along with hiring for growth, it’s a group eying how Maryland will prepare its own economy for the future.
“Every Maryland resident must have the opportunity to advance their career and provide a better life for their children, and the state must continue to be a leading hub for technology, cybersecurity, biotech and other cutting-edge industries,” said Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore), said in a statement. He called RetrainAmerica a “critical resource that will “give individuals a path forward and companies the talent they need to grow.”
Companies can sign up through the website and a resource kit to serve as a guide is forthcoming. Free to join, companies must pledge that they won’t disqualify people based on the background, education or resume items that are typically used to bring on talent. It is also seeking government partners.
“It’s about pulling together a coalition of partners to tackle this together,” Hsu said.
For Catalyte, the new push for retraining widely also shows how the crisis is accelerating something that was coming down the road. Hsu said the company was eyeing this kind of solution eventually, and the rising unemployment presents a need for an expansive approach now.
“If there was ever a time to try to make this work, this was the time to do it,” he said.-30-
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