The education revolution that could solve the labor shortage
As much as the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the future of work, in many other ways it has simply revealed deep structural flaws in our economic infrastructure.
Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the acute shortage of skilled labor, which is impacting everything from the availability of semiconductor chips to the renewed strain on hospitals and essential workers as COVID-19 cases once again rise across the country due to the Omicron variant.
At first glance, this may seem like a temporary challenge brought about by a once-in-a-century societal shock. But the root cause is clear: We’re not training nearly enough workers with the skills they need to fill more than 11 million open jobs.
Without question, the pandemic has exacerbated this challenge, along with a decrease in postsecondary education enrollment and a record number of workers joining the Great Resignation. The net result is that the U.S. college-to-career pipeline is fast approaching a breaking point.
At a recent panel discussion I moderated, skills training advocate and TV host Mike Rowe dubbed the skills gap plaguing the well-being of learners, workers, and businesses a “national emergency.” Unfortunately, we are now paying a costly price for years of neglect, with aftershocks rippling out and touching every corner of the economy.
However, young people are demanding better and leading a quiet revolution to ensure their needs are met by both education providers and their future employers.
Young people have repeatedly said they want lower-cost postsecondary education programs that take less time and provide more direct pathways to a career. We recently surveyed Gen Z high schoolers as part of our Question the Quo campaign, which seeks to inform students about the higher education options available to them and help them pursue the right career path.
We found that less than half of teenagers are considering a four-year degree. Instead, they are opting for shorter, more career-focused programs. In fact, 45% prefer programs they can complete in two years or less—a significant shift from pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, nearly 70% want on-the-job training like apprenticeships and internships during their college experience.
Slowly but surely, these changing attitudes are starting to make a dent. According to the Department of Labor, apprenticeships grew by 70% over the past decade. Major corporations like Google, Apple, and IBM, as well as the federal government, have shifted their hiring practices to focus on skills, not degrees, and are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in worker retraining. These changes may be a drop in the bucket in the face of an 11-million-worker shortage, but they demonstrate that business and policy leaders are responding to the demands of Gen Z as it enters higher education and the workforce.
Despite this progress, a deep stigma persists across society against students pursuing the kinds of short-term, skills-based programs that can help address these talent gaps. While less than half of students said they’re considering a four-year degree, 86% of those surveyed say they feel pressure—from parents, teachers, and society at large—to pursue that specific pathway, even if it’s not the right choice for them.
Change is long overdue. Policymakers must take immediate action to mobilize federal, state, and local resources to close skills gaps. Business leaders must expand their investments in training the next generation of skilled workers to staff and lead their companies. Higher education leaders must conceptualize and implement more affordable, shorter programs that successfully prepare students for 21st-century jobs. And everyone has a role to play in speaking up to end the stigma that pushes students into educational options that aren’t right for themselves or for society.
Like so many systemic problems that build over time, today’s labor shortage defies easy answers. If today’s leaders hear young people’s call for change and act with the necessary urgency, this moment of crisis may just be the wake-up call we need.
Jeremy J. Wheaton is the president and chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based nonprofit ECMC Group, which helps students succeed by providing financial literacy tools and services, nonprofit career education, and funding for innovative postsecondary programs.
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