Building a Technology Footbridge Over the Widening Skills Gap

CEO of Trade Hounds, David Broomhead, gives his take on the widening skills gap in the USA.

We’re all familiar with the supposedly sad state of affairs with U.S. manufacturing sector. The conventional wisdom is that cheap labor drew many manufacturing and skilled trade jobs overseas, never to return. The departure of those jobs left behind empty factories, rusting plants, and lots of unemployed or underemployed blue-collar workers. The few manufacturing and trades jobs that remained will likely be eliminated over time, replaced by technology and automation.

Then there’s the general perception that blue collar jobs (skilled, semi-skilled, factory, shop, field work, etc.) is dirty, dangerous, and requires little if any critical thinking (read: intelligence). This perception fuels the condescending attitude that many people have not only toward people in manufacturing, construction and other trades, but to blue-collar workers in general.

Although few would admit it, many people in the U.S. today view blue-collar workers as being somewhat inferior to their white-collar counterparts. And their jobs are viewed as some kind of career consolation prize because earlier on, they were the students who weren’t “college material.” Prejudices and preconceived notions have solidified over the years. Blue collar workers are now often assumed to be: less intelligent than their peers, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, trouble makers, misfits, rebels, or all of the above.

Marginalization of the Trades:

The assumption is that this group is a small fraction of the total population, and that for all the other high school students, the better and more certain path to success starts by getting a four-year college degree. This ‘college for all’ idea is a big part of the reason why vocational education in high schools has declined so dramatically over the past few decades.

Given this situation, it’s no surprise that most young people have zero interest in pursuing careers in manufacturing, the construction trades or similar blue-collar fields. They are profoundly disconnected from this type of work because our society and the educational system has made it not cool. Vocational and technical schools, and affiliated programs, are doing a lot to change that, and increasing application rates indicate real progress. But changing societal perceptions is a long process.

That’s how we’ve created the large and growing skills gap in the U.S. It’s a serious problem that has been well-documented by organizations such as SkillsUSA, and by people like Mike Rowe from the Discovery Channel.

The size and scope of the problem is perhaps best captured in a report co-published in 2015 by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. The report projected that between 2015 and 2025, 3.4 million manufacturing jobs will be created in the U.S., and 2 million of them will go unfilled due to the lack of skilled workers.  What’s the cost to the U.S. economy of those unfilled job? According to research cited by Fortune magazine, it’s $160 billion a year.

Before we address what can and should be done to start closing the skills gap, let’s put aside the perceptions discussed above, and level-set on present realities.

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College Not Paying Off for Many:

As for the many students on the college path, they now have $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that each year, roughly two-thirds of high school graduates go on to four-year college degree programs.

How’s that working out for them? Not so great in many cases. Almost 40% of those who start four-year programs don’t complete them. For those who do finish, about one-third of them wind up in jobs they could have landed without a degree –  and the debt that comes with it.

And here’s a real kick in the teeth: BLS found that 37% of currently employed college are in jobs for which only a high school degree is required.  Ouch!

Skilled Workers Seeing Lots of Upside:

What about the blue-collar group? How’s it going for these supposedly second-class citizens? The answer is pretty darned well, generally. This group doesn’t carry high college debts, their jobs are paying well, and with high demand for their services, those wages will only be going up. According to the compensation gurus at Payscale, an experienced welder can make upwards of $65K per year, and over $90K if they’ll travel. A mid-career elevator installer typically makes over $63K annually. The average truck driver in the U.S. earns over $46K, and long-haul truckers can easily earn over $100K per year.

Another upside for the skilled trades people are opportunities to start their own businesses. Many HVAC people, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters, after a few years of gaining experience and contacts, go out on their own. Business ownership can change their compensation picture dramatically, plus it brings the pride of entrepreneurship.

Closing the Skills Gap – The Long Road:

Education experts, labor leaders, government officials, and others know what needs to be done to close the labor gap in the U.S. We need to invest more in vocational and technical training programs, create and fund more apprenticeship programs, and make them more accessible.

According to one leading vocational and technical educator in Massachusetts, the educational system is cyclical, and for the past 20-plus years, the pendulum has swung too far in the college prep direction. But positive changes are underway, says Dr. Heidi Riccio is Director of the Medford Vocational Technical High School, located just outside of Boston.

“Since education reform legislation took effect in 1993, the dominant focus of educational efforts here in Massachusetts has been on college prep for virtually every student. That failed to recognize that what’s needed is not just college prep, but career readiness. This approach steered vast numbers of students away from their natural interests, and toward four-year degree programs that offered very little in actual career preparation. That’s a big part of why we are seeing upwards of 50% college drop-out rates, serious student loan debt levels, and skills that only qualify grads for low-paying, entry-level jobs – if they’re lucky.”

“But the pendulum is finally swinging back,” add Dr. Riccio. “The old, negative perceptions of ‘voc-tech’ are giving way to the new approaches of career and technical education, or CTE. This new approach fuses real academic rigor with career-readiness training. As a result, our graduates leave our school not only with valuable technical skills, but they also have other skills, like critical thinking and trouble-shooting, that help them succeed in the workplace. And it’s not just our plumbers, carpenters and electricians. We’re seeing more and more of our grads landing great jobs in fields such as biotech, robotics, and environmental sciences.

Add Dr. Riccio, “In my view, CTE offers a challenging, lucrative, and fulfilling alternative to ‘college prep for all,’ and the underwhelming results that direction has created for so many students. There are lots of roads to success and happiness, and our programs are illuminating those alternative paths for our students. And I have to say, the results are amazing!”

Beyond education, we also need to forge public/private partnerships in which federal, state, and local governments join forces with the business community and educational institutions to create programs that foster interest and involvement in the skilled trades.  Ultimately, we need to change the perception of these jobs and this type of work in order to, as Mike Rowe says, “make work cool again.”

That’s all well and good. The problem is that those efforts will take many years, if not decades, to make a dent in the problem. What do we do in the meantime?

Faster Results: Use Technology to Bridge the Skills Gap:

In all the articles and studies focusing on this skills gap, there are virtually no mentions of a major problem in this dynamic.  That is, the outdated, arcane way that hiring managers go about recruiting and hiring qualified, skilled workers. Despite the fact that everyone on both sides of this equation are always connected via their smartphones, tablets, and laptops, very few of them leverage technology in their recruiting and hiring, or job-hunting processes.

In the blue-collar world, they still largely rely on word-of-mouth. This colossal inefficiently results in one huge pool of potential employers who are desperately trying to fill positions, and another huge pool of potential candidates who haven’t a clue about those employers and their open positions.

What’s worse is that the two camps right now have no efficient, tech-enabled way to find one another and make the right job-candidate match-ups.  LinkedIn, Monster, Indeed and other such job boards and employment resources are all designed mostly for white-collar professionals and the firms looking to hire them. At present, there are no equivalent resources tailored for blue collar workers, and the different ways they think and operate. The truth is most blue collar workers don’t have resumes. Even if they do, it’s very difficult to show a craftsman’s skill via a paper resume. They need an alternative that’s tailored for them.

The result is hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers who are woefully underserved from an employment perspective.  These skilled workers are just as tech savvy as any other group of employees, especially the younger ones. They’re every bit as plugged in, and just as addicted to their mobile devices and online interactions.

So, why the disconnect?  We’re not entirely sure, but one thing seems plainly obvious. We should change this dynamic, and do so right now.

We should leverage wireless networking, social media, and mobile technologies to build a bridge that connects the two groups now sitting on either side of the skills gap. We need to create a technology-enabled conduit between the hiring managers and applicants, one that is built specifically for the types of people who will be using it. By doing that, we’ll create an information flow about jobs and candidates that is light years ahead of the word-of-mouth method.

Plus, since all the needed technologies not only exist already, they’ve already been adopted by the target users, this isn’t rocket science, as they say.

Once this bridge exists, and a few early adopters cross it, that trickle will become steadier, then become a flood of information-sharing between hiring entities and blue-collar job seekers.

It is that technology-enabled sharing, those new and efficient connections, that will jump-start our efforts to close the blue-collar skills gap.  What are we waiting for?


David Broomhead is Founder and CEO of Trade Hounds, the first-of-its-kind, blue-collar-focused recruitment site, job board and social network.

Trade Hounds is America’s First Job Board for Skilled Trades!

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Henry Abbott Technical High School
As the proud principal of a “trade school”, I see firsthand how successful our graduates are. In a short time after graduation, our graduates are earning high wages, working for successful companies, and putting their skills to use. While in high school, our students earn a number of industry credentials, licenses, and certifications. Parents can be the roadblock to filling these jobs. As is stated in this article, many still view the “trades” as dirty, low skilled jobs. In fact, the opposite is true. Attending a technical high school puts students on a path to success. Our students leave with… Read more »

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