Good jobs without a degree? Boston’s $3 million test.

Apr 12, 2016 by

Facing problems of income inequality, US cities looking at new ways to create well-paying jobs for workers.

By Simon Montlake –

Hari Maharjan steps out of a service elevator onto the thickly carpeted second floor in a downtown hotel. Pulling on his rubber gloves, he pushes a groaning laundry cart along the hushed corridor.

Mr. Maharjan, a housekeeping trainee, is shadowing a room attendant with nine years on the job. Maharjan is assigned a marble-floored bathroom to clean – fresh towels, mopped floor, as-new fittings. “If the guest sees a hair, there will be trouble,” the attendant says, bending to excavate the soiled bed linen.

While the training may look typical for a low-wage job, Maharjan isn’t your ordinary trainee.The 40-something father of two used to own his own store and before moving to the United States had worked as a cook in a Hilton hotel in Dubai. He sees cleaning rooms as a foothold into the American hospitality industry that he can parlay into other hotel jobs that demand more skills – and pay higher wages. Maharjan eventually wants his workdays to be measured out in more than towels and linens. “I love meeting the customers. It makes me feel happy,” he says.


This also isn’t a story about another person losing their footing in America’s middle class. Instead, Maharjan and his 16 classmates are the first to take part in a pilot project designed to help workers without college degrees land increasingly elusive well-paying jobs with benefits and a career path.

“We need to change the narrative. It’s about quality jobs, great jobs. A living wage with benefits, and a career ladder,” says Trinh Nguyen, director of the city’s Office of Workforce Development.

Hari Maharjan receives his diploma during the graduation ceremony at the BEST Corp Hospitality Training Center on April 1, in Boston. Alfredo Sosa/Staff

Using federal grants, Boston is doubling its enrollment of low-income workers in apprenticeships for construction and hospitality to 100 a year. Maharjan’s class of 17 graduated this month from a US Department of Labor-recognized “pre-apprenticeship” program for housekeeping – a national first. After they start working, trainees will continue to receive career coaching and grants for part-time college tuition.

This focus on apprenticeships and associate degrees makes sense for Boston, says Alicia Modestino, a labor economist at Northeastern University. “We don’t do a very good job of producing individuals at a middle-skill level of education,” she says.

These are the workers that employers increasingly covet, particularly when it comes to supporting the highly educated professionals of which Boston has a surfeit. While hospitals have no problem recruiting doctors, “we can’t find enough surgical technicians,” says Ms. Modestino.

By most measures, Boston is a success story, a city of knowledge and innovation anchored by deep pockets and good schools. Biotech research is booming. General Electric is moving its headquarters here. The statewide unemployment rate recently hit a 15-year low.

But the spoils of the growth aren’t equally divided. In fact, Boston led a recent Brookings survey of cities by income inequality: The top 5 percent of households took home nearly 18 times as much as those in the lowest 20 percent. While that bottom quintile is swelled by a large student body that is unlikely to remain in that income bracket, the city has pockets of poverty that sit uncomfortably with the idea that innovation hubs like Boston and San Francisco are charting a post-industrial future for all.

34,000 workers in five years

Across the country, the bulk of job growth since the 2007-09 recession has been in lower-paid service jobs such as retail and restaurant work that don’t require a college degree, fueling criticism of a two-track economy that has become a brake on social mobility.

Boston isn’t the only city that is pushing innovative apprenticeships in high-growth industries as a way to tackle inequality in its labor force. It received $3 million for these pre-apprenticeships from the Department of Labor last October, part of a $175 million program designed to train 34,000 workers over five years.

Other recipients include:

• Mission College in Santa Clara, Calif., which is training data technicians and support specialists to work in high-tech companies in Silicon Valley.

• A manufacturing consortium in Springfield, Ill., which is developing new apprenticeships that connect the workplace to community colleges.

• Houston Community College is rolling out health-care and IT apprenticeships for hundreds of workers in the Gulf Coast and Greater Dallas region.

Still, Boston already has job openings that offer a path to the middle class. The question is whether residents who only have a high school degree or less – 36 percent of those aged 25 and up – can apply. They also face the “up-skilling” of jobs by employers who became more picky about qualifications when the labor market was slack, demanding a bachelor’s degree for positions that previously went to high school graduates.

To bridge this gap, city and state officials are investing more in vocational schools, trade apprenticeships, and other training programs that give recipients a shot at landing a better job.

Cornelius Sanders practices his newly acquired skills during a banquet server class on April 5 at the BEST Corp Hospitality Training Center. The class is part of their union program, Boston’s Local 26, to expand the skill set of hospitality workers. Alfredo Sosa/Staff

In the case of housekeeping, it is exacting work. Large hotels now require all employees to speak serviceable English and complete safety courses to comply with public-health regulations. The upside is a job that pays well above minimum wage – and the possibility of future promotions for self-starters, even without a college degree.

Source: Good jobs without a degree? Boston’s $3 million test. –

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