Why Labor & Industry Need to Invest in Students

November 18, 2019

Addressing the labor shortage is no easy feat. With the majority of the current labor force nearing retirement, it’s time to really invest in the future generations of talent. Tapping into students is the most important way to directly address your labor needs. Establishing a work-based learning opportunity creates a definitive pipeline that will lead students to rewarding careers, and companies to a pool of qualified candidates.

More than ever, high schoolers are encouraged or even expected to pursue post-secondary education, and there is an increasing emphasis on obtaining a four-year degree. Many graduate from the university only to learn they are under-qualified for the jobs that will actually enable them to pay rent and begin repaying student loans for the degrees they were told were necessary to earn a living, support a family, or otherwise enable them to pursue their dreams. Meanwhile, there exists a skilled labor shortage in many technical fields that pay well and do not require a four-year college degree, yet these positions cannot be filled by the academics who find themselves fighting over a job in front of a computer screen.

Many who follow a traditional path of moving to a metropolitan area with the expectation of starting at the bottom with a fresh college degree in hand and climbing the industry or corporate ladder through sheer hard work are met with grave disappointment. The cost of living these days is such that a college degree and willingness to work simply does not get one very far. Beginners who are willing to work hard and invest their time and sweat into little-recognized efforts and uncompensated overtime find it is nearly impossible in many areas of the country because they simply cannot afford to work. When starting salary does not enable one to pay their minimal bills, the time that could be spent learning more about the business and proving one’s value is, instead, spent on one or more part-time side gigs such as driving for Uber or delivering for Amazon.

At a time when being overqualified is an unspoken qualification and having a college degree might get you in the door but doesn’t make you competitive, the younger generation is desperate for an alternative path.

As many are discovering the university path is not a reliable means to pursue the American dream as it once was, mechanical and construction jobs are being created and going unfilled. Trade skills industries are unlikely to solve this problem for the current generation, and investing in converting college graduates is unlikely to yield a measurable return on investment. Whether a graduate is indebted for his degree or simply struggling to make the degree work for him, it is uncommon for Americans to move from white collar to blue collar fields.

By investing in students—whether high school or trade school—however, these well-paying hands-on industries stand a much better chance of focusing students on pursuing shorter, less expensive degrees or certifications that will enable them to enter the workforce sooner and at a higher rate of pay than the traditional college route.

While it might require more investment in a state like California to convince a student and their family that trade school and a blue collar career is a viable alternative pathway, it is an easier sell in a state like Wisconsin where trade school is more accessible and trade skills are more likely to already exist in the family. In stark contrast the coasts, there is a higher percentage of the top nationally ranked trade schools in the midwest than that of the top-ranked four-year institutions (60% and 25%, respectively).

The low national unemployment rate is due, in substantial part, to new construction, which not only creates jobs for contractors but also for plumbers, electricians, and maintenance personnel. The current and prospective increase in trade skills positions is also attributable to the current administration’s commitment to infrastructure overhaul, including building new roads, bridges, and airports. While the majority of jobs created by these new projects do not require a college degree or even a formal education or certification, most merely require hands-on experience and training that can be completed before a student graduates from high school.

Where high school programs are unavailable and even where they are in high demand, industry professionals can help steer to the next generation of workers by informing students at the senior high level about the lucrative opportunities for work-based learning. Through currently available worksite programs, a trainee can receive employee benefits, including a pension, from the employer at the job site where she is training, as well as a competitive salary in the neighborhood of $50,000 per year.

Direct investment by the industry serves to strengthen the school-to-job pipeline. In fields where skilled labor shortages persist, it is just as attractive for employers to know where their next group of employees is coming from as it is for near-grad students to know that a job is waiting for them on the other side of their college or trade school investment. By offering high school trade skills classes and opportunities for students to work on-site for both school credit and pay, employers reap the benefits of inexpensive labor while training their own potential full-time workers, and students begin earning income and establishing a real trade before they even have a chance to weigh the pros and cons of a traditional college education.