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Maryland's labor shortage could mean a shortage of skilled workers to rebuild the Key Bridge

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By EMMA TUFO
Capital Intelligence Service

Despite Maryland's low unemployment rate, employers are struggling to fill open positions, and the blue-collar sector of the workforce is particularly under pressure.

Job seekers lack the skills required by the market, which economists say could make it difficult to find qualified local workers to rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

“We will see how this develops as Baltimore works to reconstruct the bridge. There will be a visible shortage of local skills,” said Anirban Basu, economist, chairman and CEO of Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group.

In a press conference Friday, President Biden addressed the public about rebuilding the Key Bridge after taking an aerial tour of the disaster site in Baltimore. He said the government would do everything it could to ensure the bridge was rebuilt as quickly as possible, and it would do so with “union labor and American steel.”

The bridge collapse brought all shipping traffic to a standstill in the Port of Baltimore, a major economic driver for Maryland and the United States. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced The port is expected to be partially open by the end of April and fully open by the end of May.

Over time, large urban centers central to Maryland's economy, such as Baltimore, have transitioned from predominantly blue-collar towns to white-collar towns, Basu said, citing the problem that most of the jobs to be filled are blue-collar, especially in an era of labor Reconstruction after the disaster.

In Maryland, many companies are struggling with a shortage of candidates, a stark contrast to the promising picture painted by the low unemployment rate.

In the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, employers reopened operations and new businesses emerged, but large numbers of people did not return to the workforce, leading to a decline in labor force participation, a key factor in Maryland's labor market problems.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Maryland's labor force participation rate has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels. In October 2023 it was 65.3%, compared to 69.3% in December 2019.

Maryland garnered national attention in 2023 for its low unemployment rate, which hit a record low of 2.3 percent in September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Today's unemployment rate in Maryland is around 2.4 percent, an increase of 0.1 percent from 2023. That means people could lose their jobs, according to Basu.

According to the Maryland Governor's Workforce Investment Board, finding skilled workers nationally is becoming increasingly difficult due to changing demographics, aging populations, skills shortages, lack of general workforce training, and existing and projected labor shortages in the Maryland Working Conditions Report .

The exit of workers from the labor market leaves many companies struggling to find qualified employees to meet their staffing needs. The fewer people are actively looking for a job, the lower the unemployment.

Maryland saw the country's most significant change in its unemployment rate last year, falling 0.9 percent.

“There is a shortage of workers, a shortage of skilled workers and an overall lack of the skills required for these open blue-collar jobs,” Basu said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are an estimated 3.1 job openings for every job seeker in the state, compared to just 1.3 job openings nationwide. This highlights the imbalance in Maryland's labor market.

“…many Marylanders lack the basic education and skills they need to succeed in their careers.
The challenge for Maryland is to retain its educated and skilled workforce while creating
“Opportunities for all Marylanders to participate and thrive in the 21st century workplace,” the working conditions report states.

Howard County has the highest labor force participation rate in Maryland at 56 percent. In last place is Somerset County, where only 36% of the population is employed or actively looking for work.

“It is important to remember that the lack of filling of jobs does not mean that the market is easing. During 2024, there may be a split and unemployment will slowly increase,” Basu said. “In order to address this skills shortage, the pressure to learn the skills needed must be increased.”

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