Most people are surprised to learn that there are more unfilled manufacturing jobs than the more often-discussed labor gap among software developers. There’s a massive shortage of qualified tradespeople. Even the Biden infrastructure plan, now funded to the tune of over $1 trillion, is short the necessary number of workers (paywall) to actually undertake the work. From truck drivers to phlebotomists, the U.S. faces a massive skills gap in the blue-collar jobs that make our economy function.
That skills gap won’t shrink by itself — quite the opposite. Demand for blue-collar labor is growing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that many blue-collar occupations will see significant growth, measured by the number of new job openings, through 2030. These include wind turbine service technicians (68%), solar panel installers (52%), restaurant cooks (49%) and wood model makers (38%).
The challenge will be to attract sufficient workers to meet the demand, and it’s a problem decades in the making. Today, many of our country’s challenges — from inflation to long wait times for accessing critical services — stem from this self-inflicted wound.
When did the American Dream start requiring a four-year degree?
Programs such as the GI Bill (1944) and Guaranteed Student Loan Improvement Act (1979) improved access to higher education. But the consequences of swelling four-year college enrollment were that fewer students pursued vocational training. We as a country began to make “failures” of those who didn’t pursue four-year degrees. There’s an undeserved and baseless stigma associated with vocational training.
In reality, those who eschew a college education in favor of vocational training can see these benefits.
• Earning degrees in two years, graduates of trade programs can enter the workforce sooner than in four-year degree programs.
• Because many vocational programs include technical instruction and business training, graduates of trade programs have a surer path to entrepreneurship.
American high school students are (once again) catching on.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, undergraduate enrollment at four-year institutions declined nearly 8%. Increasingly, high-school graduates are flocking to shorter, less expensive “pathway programs” that often have higher completion and job placement rates, thanks to their alignment with employers’ needs.
America’s career and technical colleges — long operating in the shadows of larger and wealthier research universities — are enjoying a moment. Rising student demand for vocational training programs, particularly in the post-pandemic economy, can help narrow the labor gap in essential trades.
How we all can help support vocational education
Vocational education is an effective path to prosperity and self-reliance. But if we’re going to work toward closing the skills gap, we need to support these schools. They need enthusiastic advocates everywhere. They also need modern technology that’s at least on par with the tools that four-year colleges are using.
This is why my company, CourseKey, is investing millions into vocational education through technology and advocacy. These initiatives serve a vision of training one million new skilled workers and transforming how America (including students, parents, high school counselors and employers) views technical education.
We can’t do this alone, though. The lion’s share of educational investment dollars has targeted K through 12 schools and traditional universities for far too long. The result is that technical colleges are disadvantaged in their ability to attract and retain students and satisfy the burdensome regulatory requirements imposed by the Department of Education and other agencies.
Whether you’re a school administrator, student, parent, technology provider or government official. It will take a village to restore the image and appeal of hard work. But when we do, we’ll see America thriving like never before.
Luke Sophinos is the Founder and CEO of CourseKey, a software platform provider supporting trade and vocational schools across the U.S.