The National Association for Business Economics’ latest business conditions survey showed that more than one-third of those polled reported that their companies were unable to find workers with appropriate skills.
The same survey reported that only 25% had trouble finding skilled workers in April of 2015 and just 22% in July of 2014 – the skill gap is widening.
Small businesses are reporting an even larger gap:
Early in July, the National Federation of Independent Business said that 44 percent of small businesses looking to hire that month reported few or no qualified applicants for positions they were trying to fill.
While this is good news for wage growth for the few skilled workers still on the market, those without skills will continue to languish likely at taxpayer expense.
What the surveys show is that the sluggish economy isn’t slow due to a lack of opportunity, but a fundamental problem with the American education system – the system does not create skilled workers and hasn’t for decades.
While the government is pushing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers and corralling students into advanced degrees, the economy might be screaming for something different:
Economists and builders we spoke to said they believe the labor shortages first became noticeable in spring last year, as housing demand started to pick up. And it isn’t just homebuilders. It can take 20 – 25 different tradesmen to get a home built — that includes everything from concrete preparation, to framing, to electricity, and plumbing.
The public education system centers on the skills that helped make the careers of those that run the schools – teachers, bureaucrats and administrators. Classes like industrial arts/shop/construction skills, are rarely offered and certainly not pushed by counselors with the same vigor as liberal arts and STEM-aligned coursework.
Not every student is meant to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship or an Ivy League invitation and it would seem that employers also need workers that are better-skilled than they are well-rounded.
Decades of “skill-shaming” may also be to blame. The cultural notion that if you don’t get a college degree, you’ll just be some poor, blue-collar bumpkin has been prevalent for the last 50 years.
Now, even some educators argue that a college degree isn’t the only way to become successful. Alan Benson, an assistant business professor at the University of Minnesota says that “a college degree is more of a stepping stone, one ingredient to consider when you’re cooking up your career. … It’s not always the best investment for everyone.”
Blue collar salaries are nothing to laugh at and they are likely to climb at an increasing pace as more kids are no longer being taught how to join two pieces of metal together effectively or put together a run of copper pipe. It’s simple supply and demand.
According to payscale.com, a master electrician can earn up to $93,597 per year. To get to master, you start out as an apprentice which makes a median total pay of about $32,000 per year and move to journeyman then master as hours on the job and classroom time requirements are met – continuing education.
What if an aspiring electrician could start their apprenticeship in high school? The 200-300 hours per year of class time studying circuits, code requirements and materials could be done at no cost to the student and before entering the job market. Summer internships could help the budding tradesman get some of the journeyman hours requirements satisfied before graduating making him/her more desirable to firms searching for skilled labor.
The other advantage to entering the trades is that employees don’t start out their careers with an average of $30,867 in student loan debt and may be paid while they learn. Many community colleges offer apprenticeship programs as well.
A college degree may be the best choice for some, but not all Americans. Our public education system is lacking when helping students make the determination. Helping to shepherd trade-savvy students into programs that will be more enjoyable and lucrative for them may also benefit the economy.
Certainly, the U.S. economy needs physicists, doctors and educators, but those aren’t the only productive career paths for American workers. In fact, if the supply-demand curve continues to steepen in the trades – one might make more pulling wire than can be fetched from several university-offered degree programs and at a much lower cost to the worker.