The Missing Skilled Worker: Solving the Case of the Unfilled Position

In a county in western Michigan, where the largest city is less than 39,000 and the rest is largely rural, jobs are going begging.  If you were to quickly search job postings you’d find:

  • 276 openings for RN’s
  • 77 current openings for software engineers
  • 50 project engineers are missing

The list could go on forever across multiple industries everywhere in the U.S.  There are simply not enough skilled workers for the number of jobs available.  Sign-on bonuses don’t work (in fact, they are a signal to many potential employees to run away) and referral bonuses fall of deaf ears.  Pay raises only invite those already working to move to new scenery.

Why are employers finding it hard to fill skilled level positions?

Of course, part of the reason is that the need for skilled labor has increased in recent years.  As technology, automation and specialization brought change to all industries, the needed skills to fill more specialized and technical roles had also increased.  But still, why aren’t there enough trained workers to fill these positions?  Did we not see this coming?

Employers did…the educational system did not.

We’ve Moved Off the Farm, But No One Told Education

Our education system, particularly K-12, is based on an outdated model from an agrarian society.  The typical school calendar offers a spring break (traditionally when farm kids were needed at home to plant crops) and a summer recess (when you had to “make hay while the sun shines”).  Most kids knew by the age of eight what their career path was going to be; they’d grow up to stay on the farm or marry into an adjoining farm family.

During this period, there was no such thing as an “internships” because kids grew up learning their trade on the job.  The role of K-12 education was to teach farm children “the three R’s” (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic) to round out the child’s life skills.  The job portion of education was already being covered at home.

When Education Turned Its Back on the Skilled Worker and Employer

But the agrarian educational model started falling apart as society became more mobile.  Farm kids were allured to cities with the promise of higher factory wages and steady work.  Those positions that needed an added level of training could be filled with on the job apprenticeships.  But even for the next several decades the educational system was out of the loop.  It lagged in job preparedness and continued to focus on the three R’s with a few extras thrown in for good measure.

Education wised up in the late ‘50’s through the early 70’s when it offered a few trade-oriented classes such as auto shop, welding and construction.  But funding cut-backs and, eventually, “no child left behind” mandates sealed education’s fate in terms of offering job readiness classes.  We settled back into a system which allowed all students to get by at a level of the lowest common denominator.  The incentive to do well in school was erased because all kids were placed on a single track where they could not imagine the connection between doing well in school and real life.

K-12 and Colleges Both Suffer from the Same Disease

Move the clock up to today, where things change quickly and job preparedness means more than the three R’s and apprenticeships.  When it comes to preparing students to enter skilled labor markets, education now needs to be teaching skills which match immediate job requirements.  It needs to open the door for advancement and further, fast-paced learning.  Once again, K-12 education falls short.  It leaves job preparation up to higher education.

But higher education has its own roots in the agrarian model, plus its ability to prepare students for what skills they can quickly learn is erased by self-preservation:  Get a student…keep a student (for at least four years).  That’s why we have seen certificate programs and two-year associate degrees fall faster than dead flies from community college offerings.  Community colleges are no longer places for job preparedness.  They are simply financially incentivized pass-throughs to four year colleges.  And to keep the lights on at their inflated rate (as seen by tuition rising more than the cost of inflation year after year) the college norm is to add more requirements unrelated to what could be a fast-track to a skilled job.  Can someone tell me how a nurse can better access a patient’s condition by being forced to learn the societal impact of Thoreau’s mother, or how a mandatory understanding of the 5th Article in the Constitution helps the chemical engineering student help develop the next needed vaccine?

Why Obtaining a B.S Doesn’t Mean Bachelor of Science

So, now we’re turning out proud graduates with STEM-related B.S. degrees.  It took a minimum of four years to get that degree.  While that student was moving through the curriculum, think of all the changes in the job market, especially relating to tech.  What he or she might have known in the first year of college is probably unrelated to skills needed at graduation, and certainly will be out of date within ten years.  When it comes to preparing the student for real work, you’ve got to wonder if that B.S. doesn’t stand for B**l S**t.  Job requirements for today’s market change at the speed of thought.  Education needs to learn how to change and prepare students just as quickly.

We Can Fix the Problem…But We Don’t Have the Guts

Preparing enough workers for the number of skilled positions available is going to require a lot of forces to come together; K-12 education, colleges, federal government mandates, state guidelines and financial tuition support systems.  Employer groups, even more than they are trying to do today, will need to guide educators about what they need and what is coming down the road…and every stakeholder will need to listen.

But there are a few working models we can take lessons from which quickly train highly skilled workers we can take lessons from.

  • The Military: Seven out of eight positions in the military are non-combative.  The military, however, can take unskilled high school graduates and train them for skilled positions in a year or less.  That means that within this sample from our own society, the military is doing what our educational system cannot:  Predict the need and quickly train enough workers to fill the positions for administration, construction, engineering, tech, medical and more.  Granted, the military has a captive audience, but they turn out the best of the best.  If the military can do that, why can’t we as a nation push aside the archaic educational system we have and do the same for all who want a skilled career?
  • Europe and Individual Nations: There was a time when the U.S. led the world in the ability to dream it, fill it and do it.  That was when we grasped the concept that students’ abilities and desires were not all the same.  Then, in the early 70’s, critics made us believe we were “pigeon-holing” kids at too early an age and stifling their ability to choose career paths for themselves later in life.  So, we dropped the multi-track model.  We put everyone on a 4-year college track, despite the fact this is an oxymoron to their own agenda.  A generation later we’ve also dropped in world standing.

In the meantime, Europe and individual nations maintained the skills path model.  In Europe, students are tested for their propensity to do well in certain careers and then they are placed on a track which matches their abilities to skilled positions.  Despite the critics, this model obviously remains effective at turning out skilled workers.  Why else would Silicon Valley invite so many tech engineers from Japan and other countries to fill positions we ourselves can’t?  And to answer the critics, if obtaining or advancing a skill didn’t require years of education, wouldn’t that give people the inspiration to enter skilled positions…or even change positions and careers?

The Missing Skilled Worker

The impact of the missing skilled worker is taking its toll.  There will be thousands of jobs left unfilled and employers who cannot accomplish what needs to be done to remain competitive because they can’t find the people to fill the skilled role.  If this doesn’t change quickly it is scary to think about what is in store the for United States and its standing in the world within the next ten to twenty years.

But if we could drag education and all those forces which protect the status quo out of the dark ages we could find enough skilled workers to fill the positions that go begging.  Imagine what that would do for our society;

  • More skilled workers who make a healthy living to support their families and communities.
  • Employers who would have a full contingent of skilled teams that were engaged in successful outcomes.
  • A rising standing in the world for the U.S. and its abilities once again.

If only…