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Across the nation, there is a lack of available skilled labor. This shortage affects many industries, but none hit harder than the construction, energy, and manufacturing industries. The shortage is caused by multiple factors including expansion in these industries, investment in our country’s infrastructure, the retirement of the baby boomers who currently fill most skilled labor positions, and less entry-level workers entering the skilled labor market. The shortage of skilled labor has far reaching impact on both local and national economies.
What is a baby boomer, and why do they have so much to do with the growing shortage of skilled labor in this country? Before millennials and GenXers there were baby boomers. According to historians, more babies were born in the U.S. in 1946, a year after World War II ended, than ever before. The upward trend in births continued through the mid-1960s. It resulted in more than 76 million baby boomers, nearly 40 percent of the U.
S. population at the time (Goering). In 2011 the first boomers to hit retirement age. It is a rate of exodus from the workforce that has never been experienced before. Compounding the problem is that not only are new workers needed to replace the boomers, but even more new workers are needed to accommodate growth in the industries requiring skilled workers.
The information gathered for this topic identifies and explores causes of the shortage of skilled labor which is currently being experienced in the United States. The information also identifies and details recommendations for addressing the problem long term.
Research and materials were obtained from business journals, news publications, and trade journals.
The shortage of skilled labor in the U.S. is not something that happened overnight, it has been building for at least a decade as the first of the baby boomers started approaching retirement age. The hardest segment of the workforce to staff are what many people refer to as “the trades”: electricians, machinists, welders, plumbers and pipefitters, and HVAC to name a few. These are the employees that are most prevalent in the construction, energy, and manufacturing industries, which are all currently booming. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the nation’s need for workers in the skilled trades is increasing much faster than the growth of employment overall (Costanzo).
There are three primary causes that have created this problem. The retirements of the baby boomers, and the construction, manufacturing, and energy booms that were mentioned previously, but likely the most significant is that less young people are pursing these types of careers. Call it a popularity problem, or a perception problem, or maybe just the message not getting out there, but fewer young people are looking at skilled labor as a career. As reported recently in Forbes, there is a perception problem out there that manufacturers aren’t clean and progressive workplaces; and under-appreciation by young people and their parents of the favorable wages in U.S. manufacturing, averaging about $77,500 a year, and the innovative, sophisticated and global nature of the work (Flows). Today’s trade and manufacturing positions compete well with the salaries of positions associated with a four-year degree. The word needs to get out in order to attract workers back to these positions.
American high schools have not helped the problem. The message they deliver is that a traditional college degree is the ticket to success, that the four-year degree is what is needed for a successful career and financial security. It is simply not true that this is the only road that leads to an upper middle-class life. Just as technical training may not be for everyone, a bachelor’s degree is also not for everyone, and opportunities in technical and trade fields need to be actively advertised and communicated to America’s youth. There is also the subset of students who will never even consider the traditional college degree. These students are being completely underserved and could be missing out on opportunities in a skilled labor field that could set them on the road to financial security and independence. Genevieve Stevens, a dean at Houston Community College said “For two or three generations, the focus has been to go to college, get a degree and in doing so you will ensure a brighter future with more access to employment. We started focusing on academic instruction, but left behind the notion of work-force education” (Wright). At the root of the problem is that American high schools focus on preparing students for colleges and universities and not for technical schools or entering the workforce directly.
The research completed shows that the shortage of skilled labor in the United States is directly related to the shortage in young workers entering these fields. The fact that the baby boomers are hitting retirement age is a complication, but it is not something that came out of the blue, everyone knew this was coming. However, it appears not many were paying attention to the low number of young workers and high school students pursuing the technical training to prepare themselves for entering the skilled labor workforce.
The changes that are needed are going to take time to make an impact on the growing skilled labor shortage, but if the right change is made, then this could be the last time s shortage is experienced. Their definitely are tangible changes that can be made, but the change that will have the most impact is an intangible one. Changing the perception of parents, students, educators, and the public is not going to be an easy task, but it is time for acceptance that college isn’t always the only route for today’s high school students. Change perception and revamp high school programs to solve the problems. High school guidance counselors should be hyping the benefits of vocational and trade schools. According to a Rutgers University study, vocational schools are seeing job placement rates close to 100 percent, whereas the rates for college students are about half of this (Stanger). Additionally, most skilled labor jobs cannot be outsourced or shipped overseas like so many computer programming and engineering jobs. Statistics like this, as well as the much lower cost of shorter two-year programs will definitely catch the attention of parents. It is not just the perception that a four-year college degree is the best path forward, there is also a stigma associated with many skilled labor jobs. Many skilled labor jobs are looked down on as being blue-collar, when really they have become highly skilled and well paying.
The part of the solution that is tangible is that high schools, and even middle schools need to change. Dr. Dana King, Instructional Chair of Business and Technology at Heartland Community College in Illinois said “people who generally like to work in these fields like to work with their hands. However, students at the junior high and high school level don’t get a chance to learn how to work with their hands, or learn that they like to work with their hands, or that that’s even a viable career for them”. She believes the problem has been exacerbated by the elimination of many technical classes and the high school focus on making sure students are college ready (Harrison). Many U.S. high schools have eliminated classes and training opportunities that traditionally would have led to a career in the trades.
In the meantime, while the labor force is waiting for a change in public perception, and for public education to change, companies and schools with existing technical programs are taking matters into their own hands. To address the shortage new academic and training programs are being created based on industry demand. Pennsylvania College of Technology is starting a Concrete Science Program for fall 2018, the only program of its kind on the east coast. Bucks County Community College offers skilled workforce training programs where some are free, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. Also at Bucks is the Gas Pipeline Mechanic Training Program, a program created by a partnership between the Collegiate Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development and PECO (Gas Pipeline). This program is designed to meet increased demand for skilled labor. Industry is telling academia what they need so programs can be tailored to the need. In addition to technical and vocational schools, and community colleges, a growing number of businesses have started their own in house training positions to tailor training specifically to their needs. Participants receive skilled training and a pay check at the same time. Local companies like Werth Industries and ABC Corp. have formalized training programs to train for the skills needed to support their businesses. Heritage PHCE, based in New Hampshire has created a fully equipped on-site training center at its headquarters (Costanzo). These are just a few of the many examples of companies not waiting around for changes in perception to take hold.
When I chose this topic, I expected to identify the underlying reasons contributing to current lack of available skilled labor in the U.S., and those reasons are, the baby boomers retiring, the growth in the construction, energy, and manufacturing industries, and less young people entering the trades. It quickly became evident that the only one of these causes that is a problem to be solved is “why are less young people entering the trades, the skilled labor market”?
I expected to find statistics for four-year versus two-year degrees, cost comparisons and student debt ratios. I expected to find analysis of open positions versus workers available to fill these positions, and I did find this type of information readily available. However, what I did not expect to find is research that supports the opinion that the primary reason for the current skilled labor shortage is due to perception, the perception of the typical American family that a traditional four-year college degree is the only path to financial stability and career success. This perception is then reinforced throughout the public school system leaving students without the knowledge and exposure to the other paths that exist.
My research for this report was based on various articles and facts, but once I hit on the perception factor, I was able to directly relate my personal life experience and agree 100% that their definitely is a perception problem with young people pursuing skilled labor as a career. I completed the standard college prep track in high school because that is what was expected of me by my parents, the school system, and myself. I got good grades, did well on the SAT and was admitted to The Pennsylvania State University in University Park, PA. Main campus as a freshman, everyone including myself was very happy and proud. However, due to the combination of not knowing what I wanted to study, not being prepared for the academic rigor, and having the freedom of living on my own for the first time, I was not successful and my parents pulled the plug after freshman year. In hindsight, and after a lot of money was spent, it is obvious that a typical four-year college degree was not for me. However, the perception of “that is what you are supposed to do” is what led me there. Why would anyone with the presumed aptitude and acceptance not go? Because of the perception of “this is what you do”, and not being exposed to other options in high school. Fast forward three years, and I am now headed off to Pennsylvania College of Technology, still under the Penn State umbrella, to a two-year associates program in Concrete Science, then off to a career as part of the skilled labor workforce. I am a direct product of the perception problem that is creating the shortage of skilled labor in today’s workforce.
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