Advances in technology and a globalizing economy have brought us more than just an iPhone 7. In recent decades, the labor market has experienced a dramatic shift, and the U.S. has failed to adapt accordingly, leading to an economically devastating skilled worker shortage. Due to a misguided education system and public misconceptions, the labor market’s unprecedented need for highly skilled workers in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is not being fulfilled, and U.S. manufacturing is suffering.
The U.S. Senate’s disappointing decision to delay action on legislation already passed by the House to modernize and reauthorize funding for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act will only amplify the economic and workforce problems our nation is facing. The fact is, the longer it takes to resolve this issue, the more manufacturing companies across the country will pay the price.
For more than 30 years, the Perkins Act has supported the transformation of the U.S. workforce through career and technical education (CTE) programs emphasizing STEM competency at high school and post-secondary institutions. However, despite the important work that the Perkins Act has carried out, existing legislation isn’t enough to solve the nation’s skills gap. In fact, an analysis of labor statistics data shows that it’s still growing: By 2025, Deloitte estimates there will be 2 million unfilled jobs in the manufacturing industry alone. Studies from CareerBuilder and the Manufacturing Institute show that companies lose an average of $14,000 for every unfilled manufacturing position, or an average loss of 11 percent of each manufacturer’s annual earnings due to the talent shortage. With facts such as these, we have to ask ourselves: Who will fill these jobs —our children’s children?
CTE is about more than just sustaining the U.S. economy — it’s also crucial to supporting the economies of the American people. A worker with a technical mind but no access to career training or STEM education is not only a loss to the economy, but also a loss to the worker and his or her family. A worker may lose out on higher wages and a more comfortable lifestyle or sustainable career. In fact, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) notes that the average U.S. manufacturing worker earns 20 percent more income than workers in other industries.
Despite this, both the misconception of CTE as less prestigious than a four-year degree and the lack of STEM proficiency and skills competency among workers have significantly hindered the growth and fulfillment of the U.S. manufacturing workforce. A Change the Equation analysis shows that not only did open positions for STEM careers outnumber the unemployed by nearly two to one between 2009 and 2012, it also predicted that STEM employment will continue to grow at a faster pace than overall employment rates. However, the 2013 STEM Connector report shows that even though student interest in STEM careers has risen over the last 10 years, this interest diminishes for three out of five high school graduates throughout their education. Furthermore, a Wall Street Journal report found that comprehensive apprenticeship programs, a time-tested worker-training strategy that benefits all parties involved, fell 40 percent between 2003 and 2013.
With these statistics indicating a less employable and skilled workforce, recent policy initiatives and statements of support have finally begun to reframe CTE as so many know it: an accessible stepping stone to a high-tech, in-demand and lucrative career.
CTE is one of the few issues on which both parties agree; Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, made support for skilled trade training and apprenticeships a prominent theme in her campaign, accurately touting it as a solution to many of America’s personal and economic woes. Additionally, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” initiative policy outline for the House of Representatives has led to the formation of the Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity and Upward Mobility. This task force has championed CTE as a way to reduce poverty and has received the support of Republican Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
As this vital piece of legislation waits to be paid its due attention, we need to think about the needs of our communities and our people. In our search for a higher and more sustainable standard of living, accessible education and a healthier, more forward-thinking economy, it is essential that career and technical education become a priority. Not next month, not next session, but today in order to secure America’s future and build a strong people and a strong economy.