Labor Shortage Continues
99% of Jobs Go to College Graduates
by Gary Kaplan, JFYNetWorks Executive Director
“There are no jobs for high school diplomas.”
The May jobs report reiterates a theme we have been hearing with increasing urgency: the shortage of skilled labor. The current 4.3% unemployment rate is a 16-year low. That means there are very few unattached workers available at a time when job openings are near all-time highs. For employers who can’t find qualified workers it means foregoing opportunities for expansion. For the economy at large it means slower growth. But it’s not just a quantitative problem, it’s also qualitative: there aren’t enough workers with the specific skills employers need. The wide range and varied dimensions of the skills shortage are indicated by a survey of Saturday’s newspaper reports.
The Globe said, “Companies are seeking workers with college degrees or specialized know-how– construction experience, for example, or a background in machine automation.”
A construction firm president confirmed, “There’s a real shortage of available workers, especially in skilled trades… Trying to find 15 or 20 people is no small feat “(Wall Street Journal).
“We have close to 100 openings. We’ve had to change our [sourcing] tactics,” said a manufacturing company president who is working with high schools and community colleges to interest students in manufacturing and distribution jobs (New York Times).
A recruiter for the industrial and automotive sectors pointed to a divergence in the fortunes of workers with advanced skills and those without them. “The hiring for very specific skilled and highly skilled workers is at an all-time high … but people who don’t have a differentiated skill set are having a harder time” (New York Times).
These comments echo many previous statements that define the skills issue with more precision than a simple call for more college degrees. Here are a few:
“You almost need a PhD in applied mechanics to work on today’s motor cars. And our people have to train constantly to stay on top of the latest information,” said a veteran auto service manager to the Boston Globe. A Fortune 500 technology CEO told the Wall Street Journal he has thousands of unfilled jobs because he can’t find mechanics who know how to put together jet engines. The jobs don’t require college degrees, but they do require competencies in math and English sufficient to read a blueprint. (Editorial interjection: Have you read a jet engine blueprint lately?) Another Fortune 500 industrial CEO explained the skill issue in the New York Times Magazine: “The computer is the new tool box. There’s one every 20 feet on our shop floor. Our workers need to be able to think creatively and solve problems. There are no jobs for high school diplomas.”
It’s not just college degrees that employers need—it’s skills. But the specific skills are so specialized and so varied, and they change so rapidly, that our 20th century workforce development system —K-12 education— cannot keep up with 21st century industry needs. By default, the college degree has become the proxy for the reading, math, problem-solving, creative thinking, continuous re-training and computer skills that companies require to compete in a global marketplace roiled by unrelenting technological innovation.
A recent NYT Magazine article (“On Money,” May 21) noted that 99% of the jobs created since the Great Recession have gone to college-trained workers. The source of that startling stat is a report titled “America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots” from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Sure enough, 99% of the 11.6 million jobs created in the recovery (2010-2016) have been filled by workers with at least some post-secondary education. Only 1% went to workers with no college. Looking back farther to the period 1989-2016, total employment grew 31% from 114 million to 149 million jobs, but the number of jobs held by workers with a high school diploma or less actually declined by 7.3 million.
We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that the job market is changing, but we need to adjust our thinking, and fast. It’s not just changing: it has already changed. The CEO quoted above put it bluntly: “There are no jobs for high school diplomas.”
This is the job market into which we are sending our young people. We have an obligation to prepare them to compete in that market. It’s not just an issue of educational equity, or even of social responsibility. If employers can’t find the workers they need here, they will go elsewhere or go under. The skills of our young people are the raw material of our economic future.