America’s “skills gap” threatens economy; preparing the next generation of workers emerges as policy priority

The Hill reports on an issue that we’ve been following closely.

Economists, demographers and political leaders are increasingly concerned that the next generation of workers won’t be ready to fill millions of new jobs across the country.

The Washington Roundtable and Boston Consulting Group called attention to the issue in our state in this report.

The majority of job opportunities—particularly those that will support upward mobility and good quality of life—will be filled with workers who have postsecondary education or training. Recognizing the need to prepare our kids for these opportunities, the Washington Roundtable has set an ambitious goal: By 2030, 70 percent of Washington students will earn a postsecondary credential by the age of 26.

We are falling well short of that goal today. Only 31 percent of Washington high school students go on to attain a postsecondary credential by the age of 26. This is due to many factors, ranging from low high school graduation rates (particularly among historically underserved student groups) to insu icient preparation for college and a lack of student awareness about job opportunities and associated skill requirements.

We discussed that report here. And in our 2017 foundation report we wrote,

The mismatch between workforce readiness and job openings hampers our collective ability to take advantage of the potential economic growth that lies ahead.

The Hill report cites relevant national research.

About 108 million workers hold jobs that require moderate or high digital knowledge, according to a Brookings Institution report published in December, and jobs are increasingly likely to require higher levels of technical knowledge.

“There’s this broad need for more digital experience, whether it be a full-time high-end IT worker or to simply carry on in the rest of the economy,” said Mark Muro, director of policy at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and a co-author of the 2017 report.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the economy will need as many as 100,000 new information technology workers per year over the next decade. Right now, only about 60,000 of these workers enter the workforce each year.

Our state shows up in the story.

As part of a 2013 deal to keep tens of thousands of jobs in the Puget Sound area, Boeing secured a commitment from the state of Washington to bolster science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum in public schools.

And,

“We have over 700,000 job openings that we think will be available in Washington state in the near term, and most of those will go to people out of the state and even out of the country. So we need to reconfigure,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (D) said in a recent interview. “If you look at where the economy is moving, that’s going to become even more exacerbated. When automation comes on full bore, just autonomous vehicles will have about 20 million Americans out of work, overnight. And there’s no plan on where you then move them in the workforce.”

In the Tri-Cities Journal of Business, AWB president Kris Johnson  writes about the rewarding, good-paying careers await hands-on workers . He points out,

For today’s and the next generation’s hands-on workers, it’s an exciting time to be a job seeker in Washington state.

That’s because as many as 740,000 good-paying jobs in the state’s manufacturing sector are open. In central Washington, careers in manufacturing pay an average annual wage ranging from $44,398 to more than $52,000, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Johnson writes,

These are jobs that often require a trade certificate or a two-year degree.

Filling all those hands-on jobs means we must rethink not only how we close the skills gap, but also the “interest gap” for the next generation of builders, welders and makers.

Washington is making progress, he says,

We’re moving in the right direction in our K-12 education system with the growing trend of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) schools. Our community and technical colleges also do a great job of partnering with employers to build the local work force they need to compete nationally and globally.

But there is room for growth.

We recommend the Johnson op-ed. And also we reiterate the recommendations made in the Roundtable-BCG report:

  • Improve school readiness, with an emphasis on low-income children and traditionally underserved student populations.
  • Improve the performance of our K–12 system to ensure more
    high school students graduate career- and college-ready,
    with an emphasis on raising achievement among at-risk students and low-performing schools and students.
  • Increase participation of Washington students in postsecondary education, with a focus on delivering degrees, certificates, and other credentials in fields that will be in high demand.
  • Help students, beginning in elementary school, develop better awareness of the careers that will be available, inspiring them to think about their futures, the skills necessary for the jobs that interest them and the pathways to attaining those skills.