BY TUDOR DIXON
Ivanka Trump, daughter and advisor to the president, recently pointed out a startling fact that folks in business have been clamoring about for years.
“There are currently 6 million jobs available in this country that are due in part to the skills gap,” the first daughter posted to Twitter.
The problem is underscored by Labor Department data showing there are 6.8 million Americans looking for a job.
The so-called skills gap is a problem with roots in education and serious implications for the nation’s economy and defense. Many of the available jobs require specialized training and skills, but not necessarily a college degree – the ultimate end-goal for most high school guidance counselors.
America’s education system has slowly shuttered vocational education programs in favor of pushing students toward a path through college that’s left many with unusable degrees and sky-high loans.
Meanwhile, an aging population of baby boomers are retiring from traditional occupations – plumbers, electricians, foundry workers, machine technicians and numerous other technical fields – with no one to replace them.
Rob Kaplan, CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, put the problem into perspective for Bloomberg:
The skills gap in the U.S. is substantial. The National Federation of Independent Business found that as of first-quarter 2017, 45 percent of small businesses reported that they were unable to find qualified applicants to fill job openings. Dallas Fed surveys of businesses also indicate a significant skills gap. Chief executive officers report shortages of workers for middle-class-wage jobs such as nurses, construction workers, truck drivers, oilfield workers, automotive technicians, industrial technicians, heavy equipment operators, computer network support specialists, web developers and insurance specialists. If these types of jobs go unfilled, businesses will expand more slowly and U.S. growth will be impeded.
Closing the skills gap would come with tremendous benefits for the country, as well as countless students looking for an avenue to prosperity that doesn’t involve massive debt.
Kaplan points out that the labor force participation rate for prime-age college graduates is about 88 percent, while it drops to 81 percent for people with some college. The participation rate is around 76 percent for high school grads and 66 percent for students who never earn a diploma.
“In short, where there is substantial labor slack in the economy, it is highly correlated with segments of the population with lower levels of educational attainment,” he wrote. “While there are a variety of reasons for this correlation, individuals in these segments would benefit from additional skills training in order to be more productive members of the workforce.”
Wiegel Tool Works, a high precision metal stamping outfit, produced an info graphic illustrating the divergent outcomes of students who pursue a tool and die apprenticeship versus five years of college.
Tool and die apprentices earn about $47,600 in their first year of on the job training, while college students typically take on about $40,000 in debt, a difference of $87,600. By year five, the difference would grow to an eye-opening $578,025 – with the apprentice making $357,000 throughout the training, and the college grad taking on $221,025 in loans.
President Trump has recognized the skills gap and last year signed an executive order to “expand apprenticeships and vocational training to help all Americans find a rewarding career, earn a great living, and support themselves and their families and love going to work in the morning.”
Trump’s executive order aims to remove “federal restrictions that have prevented many different industries from creating apprenticeship programs.”
And while government bureaucracy is certainly one obstacle to overcome, Mike Rowe, former host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” has repeatedly pointed to another much bigger issue.
Rowe, who has testified before Congress numerous times about the skills gap, contends the stigma of a career in the skilled trades – perpetuated in part by the education system – is a serious problem.
“It’s a bias, it’s misguided as any other prejudice with us today, and it poses a clear and present danger to our country’s overall economic security,” Rowe told lawmakers last year.
He also recounted his Congressional testimony in 2013, when he called on legislators and America in general to rethink the current approach to higher education.
“I argued then that our skills gap is the direct result of a mistaken belief that the best path for most people is a four year degree, and I concluded with another appeal to aggressively confront the stigmas and stereotypes that discourage people from entering the trades, along with the challenge to guidance councilors to present a more balanced presentation of educational alternatives beyond high school,” Rowe said, according to Working Nation.
“This cookie cutter approach to promoting higher education has led to thousands of graduates with expensive degrees from excellent schools, but with no prospects in their chosen field and no way to pay off their student loans,” said Rowe, who now runs the nonprofit mikeroweWORKS to promote skilled trades.
Rowe contends the “critical part of the solution often overlooked by politicians and educators is the pressing need for better PR.”
Lumen Student News is focused on changing that dynamic through weekly “Work Matters” segments on Mondays that introduce students to a wide variety of occupations, from service in the U.S. Coast Guard, to jobs in cosmetology, aviation, landscaping, politics and other fields.
In May, Lumen will launch a series specifically focused on manufacturing jobs.
Some of the “Work Matters” segments will feature skilled trades, others will into occupations that require a college education, but the overarching goal is the same: to demystify and destigmatize occupations that made America what it is today, and to expose students to all of the opportunities available – not simply those requiring a four-year degree.
Tudor Dixon is CEO of Lumen Student News.