Nearly a decade ago, in October 2009, when the recession and unemployment was at its absolute worst, unemployment peaked at 10 percent. All the while the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that there were 2.1 million available jobs. What happened after that was unsurprising, but unfortunate all the same.
Both sides of the political aisle saw a chance to make a political statement. The Republicans called out the unemployed for being lazy, while the Democrats claimed that the greed of corporate America was to blame — if they would only pay what they should.
The focus was not the fact that those jobs existed; instead, the focus was on the debate.
Why the Shift to College Education?
High school graduates have attended college at far higher rates than ever before; in fact, between 1965 and 2015, enrollment rates surged 240 percent. Americans have been driven by the financial incentive; they want to leave college and immediately enter a career with a high rate of return. In the past, the statistics have pointed to a reality where over the long run, a college degree made it more likely an individual would enjoy financial security.
The problem is that shift to spend at least four years in college continued to happen despite the fact that the cost of college has soared. As more have gone to college, and more skilled labor jobs and fewer individuals with the know-how to work them have arisen, the landscape that made college the most dynamic choice for many has changed.
Current research by the Department of Labor in Idaho found that college costs an average of $127,000 per student. Plus, the rates at which college grads are able to get jobs has fallen over the past decade. There is more financial strain not just for the broader economy, but for college grads as well, who spend years trying to shake their student loans.
In the spring of 2017, the latest intel from the Department of Labor showed that there were 6.17 million available jobs and 6.8 million unemployed. That’s a record breaking number of available positions. But, it’s also a lot of unemployed individuals.
According to Patrick Gillespie for CNN Money, “What the numbers illustrate is one of the key problems that has plagued the U.S. labor market in recent years. Job seekers tend to lack the skills in demand, they’re not willing to move to jobs that are available, or employers have unrealistic expectations.”
Why Skilled Jobs Are Undervalued
The reality is that being able to count on college as the surest way forward for financial security is no longer a reality. Not just because of its own cost and lack of job assurance, but also because of how demand for skilled workers has shifted.
Job Growth and Ease of Entry into the Field
America will face a projected shortage of jobs due to what is being hailed as the worker-jobs mismatch. While some of the expected job availability in the future will be for the college-educated, a great many of jobs will best be filled by individuals with high school diplomas, a solid grasp of math, and some additional job-specific training.
According to Kevin Hall for the Los Angeles Times, “The U.S. Labor Department projects that demand nationwide for all those categories (electricians, roofers, plumbers, etc.) except carpenters will grow considerably faster over the next decade than the pace of overall job growth.”
What we see time and time again in the current job market is that the problem is not that there aren’t enough jobs, it’s that there aren’t enough qualified people to fill those jobs.
The jobs are there and waiting with open arms, and not only that, they are typically more cost-effective and faster to get. The vast majority of skilled laborer positions require less than a four-year degree, which means that students are paying less to be competitive and are waiting shorter amounts of time before entering the job market.
Would-Be Workers Aren’t Even Aware
For those entering the job market to understand the options available, we have to get better, at a societal level, at making it clear what their options are.
A survey of high school students by Florida Career College found significant numbers felt there was a lack of education in the following areas:
- Teaching basic financial skills such as budgeting (52%)
- Helping identify the best college or training program for them (48%)
- Show how school work connected to post-high school goals (45%)
- Preparation for the working world, including how to write a resume and interview (44%)
- Teaching good study habits (43%)
High school students themselves feel ill-prepared to manage basic life skills. They (and the economy) would be best served by a system that better acquaints them not just with the basics, but also with a clearer perception of their options.
Mike Rowe, perhaps best known for his role as the host of Dirty Jobs — a show which commonly featured skilled laborers — has begun the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which offers support and scholarships for those interested in skilled trade education.
Rowe wrote on his site, “Five and half million unfilled jobs is clearly a terrible drag on the economy and a sad commentary of what many people consider to be a ‘good job’, but it also represents a tremendous opportunity for anyone willing to learn a trade and apply themselves.”
It’s far more popular to tout the idea that we should paying all workers more, even if they don’t have the skills to pay the bills. If you adopt that mentality, it’s fairly easy to ignore the reality of the skills gap altogether. Not very helpful.
The idea that America is no longer the land of opportunity isn’t accurate; rather we must reorient what we believe to be true about the opportunities that exist. Especially given the reality that employers desperate for people who actually can do the job will be willing to pay more. But we can only expect it to happen when those workers who know what they’re doing actually show up for an interview.