Filling a Different Pipeline for Middle-Skilled Talent

A recent article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, “The Real Reason That Young People Can't Find Jobs,” addresses a minor debate sparked by a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the high unemployment of young Americans and the state of entry-level jobs. Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, counters in his article some of the ideas laid out in the WSJ piece and attributes the problem to completely different factors.

Among those is a graph depicting youth unemployment rates during the past 30 years where he notes the “overall youth unemployment rate hasn't budged from its historical average,” and extrapolates there isn’t anything unusually wrong with the youth job market today (the article goes deeper into the reasons why). Where the larger problem lies is the growing number of recent graduates who are underemployed — working jobs that don’t require the degree they just earned. Thompson says, “The most important concern today shouldn’t be whether they find work, but what kind of work they find.”

I drew a parallel here to a recent presentation I heard by CareerBuilder CEO Matt Ferguson, who gave an update on the mixed job market recovery at the company’s eighth annual Staffing and Recruiting Executive Summit. He described what he called a “post-secondary problem” where access to college for many is obstructed by enormous cost and debt. There is $1 trillion in student loans outstanding, with 7 out of 10 undergrads receiving state, federal or institutional assistance in 2012.

The increasing cost of a college education is resulting in fewer high school graduates seeking post-secondary degrees. Enrollment fell from 21.4 million to 19.9 million in 2012, and approximately 300,000 fewer students enrolled in college in the fall of 2013 compared to 2012. Add to that, nearly half of those who enroll leave college without a degree. Experts say the critical undersupply of skilled labor in the U.S. to fill current and future jobs is getting worse, particularly in IT and health care.

So, here we have the convergence of lower four-year college enrollment due to cost, more underemployed young workers who actually do graduate and millions of open jobs with a growing skilled labor shortage. How are we going to fill jobs if we don’t have a pipeline of people learning the skills needed for these posts? We need to fill a different pipeline.

In 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, middle-skill jobs will have comprised 46 percent of all job openings in the preceding decade. These are jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree and generally pay $50,000 a year or more on average. Statistics show that some type of post-secondary education or training is necessary to secure a viable, career-oriented job, but a four-year college education isn’t the only option, nor is it always the preferred one.

By tapping into the talent pool coming from trade and vocational schools, we endorse these institutions as viable opportunities for students to build a career. They will see the advantages of the skilled trades as ones that offer immediate job opportunities, continued growth and job security. In fact, earning a two-year degree in a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering or math) from a trade or vocational school can lead to greater average lifetime earnings than college graduates in most other career areas.

A Harvard study titled, “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century,” offered an insightful and comprehensive look at the current state of education and the job market:

“Our current system places far too much emphasis on a single pathway to success: attending and graduating from a four-year college after completing an academic program of study in high school. Yet as we’ve seen, only 30 percent of young adults successfully complete this preferred pathway, despite decades of efforts to raise the numbers. And too many of them graduate from college without a clear conception of the career they want to pursue, let alone a pathway for getting there.”

The younger generation is fueled by innovation and the sincere desire to make an impact on the world. If we promote the other opportunities out there to learn a skill and become employable, we give them an opportunity to excel within these roles. At the same time, we’re setting our businesses up for success and future stability with the influx of skilled talent. We build a whole new pipeline by broadening the traditional path to a career. Have you connected with the trade schools in your area to identify new talent? If so, what has been your experience?