The state's labor secretary told North Shore business leaders Wednesday that worker training must increase if businesses hope to fill jobs as the pandemic eases.
"One thing we have to get right is, we need to make sure we're training people that don't have the training to take the jobs that we currently have open," Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Rosalin Acosta said. "One of my biggest fears is, who are the people we are going to leave behind once we start opening up the economy?"
Acosta's comments came during a virtual business insight forum hosted by the North Shore Chamber of Commerce. Acosta is a former board chair of the organization. She was appointed labor secretary by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2017.
Acosta encouraged businesses to take advantage of the state's apprenticeship programs, which train workers in a variety of fields beyond the trades that have historically been associated with apprenticeships. She said the state recently helped establish an apprenticeship program at Reading Cooperative Bank.
Acosta said employers are having a hard time finding workers, yet the apprenticeship programs are under-utilized. "There's a real opportunity now to make sure we are training people into good middle-wage jobs," she said.
Acosta said she would like to see career centers in every high school in the state to start linking students with potential employers.
"We all have kids that have been really lost after they graduate from high school or college," she said. "They don't know how to connect. The lack of a network leaves them overwhelmed. The sooner we make those connections the better the student will be."
Acosta said the state is also trying to open up vocational schools to the public, including after-school training programs for students from other schools and night programs for adults.
"We want to make sure there's an employer at the other end to hire that trainee," she said.
Acosta, whose department oversees the Division of Unemployment Assistance, acknowledged that the boost in unemployment benefits during the pandemic has resulted in many people turning down jobs because they can make more money from unemployment. When the federal government was contributing an extra $600 for unemployment benefits, 80% of people on unemployment were making more money than they were while working, she said.
"It is a challenge," Acosta said. "What we try to tell folks is, unemployment is temporary. It does not come with health care, or 401k plans, or career opportunities. But it is hard, especially if you're in a low-wage job."
Acosta called it a "very sad statement" when people can make more on employment because wages are so low.
"To me it's a bright light to look at and say, 'What's wrong here?'," she said. "How is it possible that in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that we have so many people that are better off not working?"
Acosta also said the amount of fraud in the unemployment system during the pandemic has been "absolutely astonishing." She attributed much of it to "sophisticated national and international criminal rings" that steal personal data and file claims under someone else's name.
Acosta said she has had two fraudulent claims filed under her name, in Massachusetts and Kentucky.
"It's not a breach of our system. It's breach of your data," she said. "This is your data that's sitting on the dark web."
Acosta urged anyone who has had a claim filed fraudulently under their name to report it to the state's Division of Unemployment Assistance.
Acosta noted that women have accounted for two-thirds of unemployment claims, a reverse from pre-pandemic figures when men made up two-thirds of claims. She said those numbers reflect the increasing pressure on women to handle child-care duties with school-age children learning from home. The state needs to reexamine child care, both the costs for families using it and wages for the people working in the field, she said.
"It's expensive and people don't get paid that much," Acosta said. "You can't live off $25,000. How do you make that a more attractive career path and much more affordable for families? This pandemic has finally brought that point home."
Acosta said the state is working with employers, educators and unions to create "career ladders" in low-paying jobs in the health care field.
"We need PCA's (personal care attendants) and direct care workers more than anyone," she said. "They're the hardest working people in the universe and we've got to do something about that pay."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.