New director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development Jason Perkins-Cohen. (Courtesy Photo)

Connecting city residents to jobs is the straightforward mission of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, and that means cultivating various paths to the skills needed for sustainable employment, says its new director, Jason Perkins-Cohen.

Perkins-Cohen took over the office earlier this month, having previously served as the executive director for the Job Opportunities Task Force, a workforce development advocacy organization.

“What we generally want to do is to get our residents prepared, and help them to obtain as many credentials as possible so that they have the skills that they need and the qualification they need to get a whole host of opportunities,” said Perkins-Cohen in an interview with the AFRO.

The idea that we can improve workforce participation by ensuring residents have skills related to openings in a particular field or industry is something of a false promise, says the director, since no one industry has enough jobs for everyone that needs one. This is why it is important to make sure our residents are able to obtain skills and credentials that open up various opportunities, not simply ones related to jobs du jour.

“When you’re talking about a city like Baltimore, the most obvious place to start is to make sure that as many people have a high school diploma or a GED , and then once they have that, then there’s either occupational credentials . . . or you help them advance to postsecondary education . . . where they’re focused on specific jobs or career pathways. It has to be about career pathways,” said Perkins-Cohen.

And focusing our job preparedness efforts on career pathways means not relying solely on the promise of four-year college degrees to deliver middle-class or better employment.

“College is a great avenue for lots of people and we don’t want to discourage people from obtaining an advanced degree, but there are an awful lot of jobs out there where four years of college is not a requirement, and some of these jobs provide a really strong wage and residents can move into those career pathways relatively quickly without having to take four years or the cost that they would incur (for a four year degree),” said Perkins-Cohen.

Many people need a job now, and many employers also need workers now. Increasingly, says Perkins-Cohen, employers are coming to the realization that four year degrees do not always endow people with the specialized skills related to their employment needs, and so alternative paths to skill and job development must be cultivated.

“That’s why apprenticeship models and the interest in apprenticeships has really taken off (nationally) in the last couple of years, because employers obviously want a skilled workforce and four years of college provide a well-rounded education, but not always the skills that employers are looking for. And so the apprenticeship model has become—where it was thought of in more of a hands-on sector, previously, and it still is, but now it’s being expanded to sectors like healthcare where apprenticeship wasn’t discussed as much until more recently,” said Perkins-Cohen.

The working while learning model embodied by apprenticeships is a faster route to skill development for certain kinds of jobs, says Perkins-Cohen, which helps residents enter careers sooner as well as providing employers with the skilled workers they need in less time.

And because connecting residents to efficient career pathways is the basic mission of the Office of Employment Development, Perkins-Cohen also emphasizes the importance of connecting youth to early employment opportunities through the city’s Hire 1 Youth initiative, part of the city’s broader youth employment programming under the banner of Youth Works. Last summer, the city’s efforts led to around 5,000 youths obtaining jobs, an accomplishment Perkins-Cohen wants to see repeated this year.

“It is absolutely critical that we create these pathways, and create these opportunities for our youth. . . . does three things that are incredibly important. One is it provides an income for six weeks in the summer, which is important, but it also teaches the value of work, and it creates an understanding, and an opportunity for a lot of young people to get their foot in the door for a career.”

While 5,000 youth jobs is certainly something to be proud of, the city has 14,000 young people in need of employment, and Perkins-Cohen wants to impress upon employers the impact hiring a young person can have by helping to set them on an actual career pathway.

“We’ve got 14,000 kids that want to work, which is tremendous, and now we have to come through with the opportunities.”