Experts agree: the skills gap is now a national emergency; reversing it is the “work of our lives.”
By Jeremy Wheaton
Earlier this month, ECMC Education hosted a panel of seasoned experts to discuss the problem of the persistent mismatch of skills employees have versus skills employers need, especially in middle-skills fields and the skilled trades.
As the moderator of the event, I was encouraged to see a robust discussion of the doggedly growing skills gap, its many consequences across all facets of the economy, and ways to better address those problems through policy and partnerships. Experts from across the workforce training spectrum were aligned that the pandemic has exacerbated a worker shortage which, combined with the persistent skills gap, has created a national emergency.
Now more than ever, a collective effort is required to rethink outdated notions about colleges and careers and build new partnerships that meet the needs of today’s students and businesses. If we do so, this transformative moment represents an incredible opportunity to build a more responsive and effective education-to-workforce pipeline that benefits us all. If we don’t, this moment could very well represent the tipping point for a national way of life wherein hiring a plumber, electrician or air conditioner repair person could require weeks- or months-long waits.
The panel came against the backdrop of a historic labor shortage amid the recovery from the pandemic economy, with the worsening skills gap a chief culprit in the shortage. The Chamber of Commerce and leading economic analysts have pointed to the mismatch between the skills workers have and the skills employers need as a leading cause of this shortage, with the U.S. still “missing” 4.3 million workers from pre-pandemic levels. Amid this ongoing shortage, employers are re-evaluating their current and future business models and reconsidering how they can fill those needed roles — and what the consequences will be for their businesses and their bottom lines if they can’t.
Our panelists were in full consensus that the labor shortage is having a major impact on the businesses across sectors that are working to recover from the shock of the pandemic and set the American economy back on a path toward a new normalcy. Panelist Trinh Nguyen, director of workforce development for the City of Boston, said: “The dominant narrative in the labor market right now is a shortage of workers. There’s not enough workers in the ports and in supply chain management to move things. Businesses are closing or reducing hours because they’re lacking the workers. And I really believe that looking at the trends, pre-COVID, if this country had prioritized and invested in skilled trades, I don’t think that we would be having the labor shortage that we have now.”
And fellow panelist Mike Rowe, host of the “Dirty Jobs” television program and an advocate for the skilled trades, argued that the current strain is a “matter of national security,” with “skin in the game” for all those who count on “smooth roads and reliable plumbing and affordable electricity.” As the public at large experiences first-hand what these shortages mean — whether waiting for a part on a container ship or for an electrician or a plumber in a pinch — these pain points could spur greater commitment from those well beyond the skilled trades to addressing the skills gap.
The time has come to rethink the traditional education model, with a focus on finding innovative approaches to delivering both quality education and equitable outcomes, while getting people into jobs at a quicker pace without the heavy burden of excessive student loan debt. One contributor to the skills gap is the broad prioritization of four-year degree programs that can leave students lacking the skills they need to repay that debt through a good-paying job, over shorter duration, more affordable trades and technical programs that quickly lead to well paying, readily available careers. With the amount of student debt in the U.S. surpassing a record-breaking $1.73 trillion and a rising skills gap, it’s clear we need to modify the current system to ensure students enter the workforce well prepared for 21st-century careers.
A second critical factor exacerbating the skills gap is the stigma that still exists around the skilled trades. While the panelists were broadly optimistic that attitudes are beginning to change around work, education and careers, they also agreed that there is still much more to do in addressing the stigma that holds many students back from considering career and technical education (CTE) as an option. As Mike Rowe said during the event: “It’s very Sisyphean what we’re trying to do collectively. We’re trying to confront stereotypes, stigmas, myths and misperceptions that affirmatively discourage millions of people from giving the trades an honest look. It’s doable, but it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. It’s going to be the work of our lives to turn this ship around.”
I couldn’t agree more. With a record 10.9 million open jobs in the U.S., and with the trend going in the wrong direction for years (Mike Rowe acknowledged that there were 2.3 million open jobs when he launched his foundation in 2009, so the problem has worsened nearly five-fold in just over a decade), it’s imperative that we bring all the key stakeholders to the table to take immediate action on this urgent and growing challenge. There is too much at stake to let another decade or more pass without making progress. To avoid the current skills gap widening to a gulf, education leaders, employers and policymakers must align to aid in the development of students and workers into productive workforce contributors by utilizing technology and offering true-to-life, hands-on learning experiences that lead to career pathways, family-sustaining wages, and a strong student return on investment.
That’s why we brought together these voices from across the workforce training spectrum sectors: to illustrate the potential that exists when we work together for a common goal. Those voices also represent the greatest reason for optimism in this fight. The necessary work is already well underway, in the day-to-day lives of all of our panelists and at ECMC Group through our Question the Quo campaign, which aims to empower students to learn about the various higher education options available and to take the career path that’s right for them, and through efforts by our Altierus Training Solutions affiliate and our community education partners across the country to offer learners innovative, affordable pathways in CTE. While it may indeed be a “Sisyphean” challenge, I left the discussion more hopeful that we are on a pathway to reverse out of the current state of code red and to make real progress in closing the skills gap.
It is a challenge that cannot be solved by any one person or organization alone. Instead, it will truly require buy-in and engagement from everyone to put a dent in the skills gap. As I said in closing the discussion, truly addressing this national emergency in a sustainable, robust way requires bringing together everyone — employers and policy advocates, students and educators — to challenge and support each other in pursuing policies and partnerships that break down silos and embrace both innovation and diversity. If we succeed in doing so, the recovery from COVID-19 can lead to an economy that is more resilient, equitable and prosperous than ever before. I hope you’ll answer the call and join us in turning the tide toward better job training and better jobs and sharing the success stories for more and more of our fellow citizens.
Jeremy Wheaton is president and CEO of ECMC Group.