CEOs make urgent plea for skilled workers. Higher ed, take notice.

Unemployment in the US is a training issue, business leaders say

Caroline Hopkins, staff writerCaroline Hopkins, staff writer

This past Thursday, President Trump met with the CEOs of the country's 20 largest manufacturers to discuss his goal: bring back millions of jobs. 

But the CEOs told Trump they have plenty of open positions—U.S. workers just don't have the right skills to fill them.

There is data to back this up—a 2016 PayScale survey found 50% of respondents said their companies were unable to fill open positions for lack of qualified workers.  

"The jobs are there, but the skills are not," one CEO explained to Trump.

In an interview with NPR's Ari Shapiro, Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, shed additional light on the reasons behind the skills gap.

"Factories are much more high-tech than they used to be," said Muro. "[Training programs] are too small, offered too late, and don't focus enough on key skills."

Muro also shared that one of the most in-demand and hardest-to-find skills is "dexterity and speed using digital technology."

When asked what he thought Trump could do to address the skills gap in the workforce, Muro said that the first step could be to offer "much better job-market counseling for workers who apply for support." This would give workers more transparency into which fields are hiring and which skills they will need to know to land a job in those fields. 

The elephant in the room, of course, is the pressure the skills gap puts on our nation's higher education system. If, as Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told VOA News, the U.S. spends "just one sixth the amount that other advanced industrial nations put into upgrading workforce skills," then a vast majority of the responsibility to train workers falls in the hands of postsecondary education.

The question, then, is how can colleges educate students academically while also training them in the technical skills they will need to land a job—and, ultimately, improve our country's economy.

Chris Paynter, the head of science technology, engineering and math education at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC), told VOA News his school is trying one potential solution. He described CPCC's "programs that blend academic skills with on-the-job training," adding that they combine "core skills and training customized for the needs of the particular firms that employs the apprentice."

An in-depth look at two successful industry partnerships—and what makes them successful

Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) told VOA that schools should also teach creativity, problem solving, and how to "figure out what problem we should go chase down next," which, he notes, technology cannot do. 

The soft skills gap is just as prominent as the technical skills gap. We need to address them both.

Jason A. Tyszko, the executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, explains, "We have a system that operates backwards. Educators develop curriculum without much input from employers."

Tyzko suggests that experiential-learning opportunities and industry-sponsored innovation challenges can help give employers more transparency into graduates' capabilities (Shapiro, NPR, 2/24; Randle, VOA News, 2/23; Rugaber, Associated Press, 2/23).

COE units can help close the skills gap. Here's how.

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