There aren’t many political issues Americans can find consensus on these days and perhaps not surprisingly the skills gap has become one of them. I liken the debate between workforce development leaders, educators, economists, politicians and business journalists to that of climate change science.
One side strongly believes that there is a major skills gap because of demographics and an educational mismatch. The other side feels the skills gap is overrated and can be fixed by higher wages, immigration reform, union memberships, apprenticeships, better partnerships with government and changes to hiring processes.
Perhaps what makes this skills gap debate more interesting than most is it doesn’t fall neatly into left and right political camps. What other issues could NY Times Columnist Paul Krugman and Attorney General Jeff Sessions find common ground? (Both, for the record, are deniers — Krugman falters companies for pay and Sessions singles out illegal immigration for driving down wages and opportunities.)
But what if there is a third way that says both sides have merit?
There is no argument that the economy has a lot of job openings —, nearly six million, the most since 2000. So how do we begin filling those jobs and increasing productivity and growing wages?
Let’s start with demographics. Most skilled jobs, whether they are in advanced manufacturing or construction, have average participants in their mid-50s. For too long we have relied on career changers to fill the ranks. It’s not helpful to have someone lose a decade or more of productivity after high school.
Employers and technical schools can’t be afraid anymore to recruit directly from top performing high schools, especially given the questionable return on many four-year degrees and student debt. It is much easier to start a family, buy a house or car when you have a steady, stable middle-class income, rather than coming out of the gate with a $200,000 liberal arts loan.
Building relationships with schools that feed your potential workforce is crucial. Every construction program, STEM program in Cobb County should be fully funded, but not just by taxpayers. They should be supplemented by private employers and industry. And yes, schools have a responsibility too; they must allow input from experts who know what is needed.
As southerners, we need to rethink our bias toward unions, especially those in craft trades like electrical, plumbing, pipefitting, sheet metal and ironwork. I always enjoying hearing their recruiters tell young people “we are not the UAW or the SEIU. We want to work and we want our contractors to make money.” That’s an important message, especially for millennials whose parents may not think very highly of organized labor.
Unions, too, need reform. They must give more credit in their apprenticeship programs toward tech school graduates and keep their political work off their websites. It doesn’t help fill jobs when you offend 50 percent of the public on your homepage. To their credit, many union chapters are figuring this out and are making necessary changes.
Hiring processes need to be reviewed as Wharton Economist Peter Cappelli has pointed out that extensive online applications aren’t always helpful. Screening software filters out qualified candidates just because their resume is missing a buzzword. From personal experience I can attest that you must be willing to train new hires. The adage to hire for character and train for skill certainly applies here.
There are skills that may not appear in an educational or work history that can absolutely help an employer grow their business. And as employers, we sometimes lose sight that we need people who will do just that.
So, after raising wages, embracing both merit and union jobs, partnering with government and rethinking our hiring processes is this skills gap going away?
Not until we start attracting young men and women into careers they never previously considered. This may in fact be the most challenging issue.
A 1970s approach does not work in this rapidly changing digital era where capturing the attention of a teenager is very difficult.
Every single marketing piece toward closing the skills gap should be evaluated by millennials themselves, from the design of an advertisement to the color and style of a hoodie or t shirt. Stock photos won’t do, as employers who have hired graduates of a local high school should have materials to reflect that. Embracing popular culture is crucial too.
We have an emerging giant in the film and television industry with the potential to be Hollywood East. We all know the actors on The Walking Dead and Stranger Things, but do we know anything about the set designers, the carpenters, the electricians, the painters or the welders. I bet it would be considered cool to work on your favorite shows.
The skills gap can be closed, but to quote Country music icon Toby Keith “we need a little less talk and a lot more action.”