Skills Gap

"We need more than just one pathway to good jobs in the U.S." wrote Jeff Selingo, author of There Is Life After College, a new book from Barnes & Noble to be on the shelves in a couple of weeks, "What we need is a place like Harvard -- both prestigious and rigorous -- that will attract students who have talents and interests to pursue skilled jobs critical for the economy that don't necessarily require a four-year degree."

I do not know Mr. Selingo but he's singing my song, one my faithful readers have heard many times before. He makes the valid point that 40 percent of American workers hold a bachelor's degree, and that college graduates are found in virtually every profession. "Some 15 percent of mail carriers have a four-year credential, as do one in five clerical and sales workers and 83,000 bartenders," he said.

It is abundantly clear to many of us that our traditional four-year institutions are woefully out of date and disconnected from the modern workplace. "Getting a bachelor's degree is what going to college means to most Americans and is so ingrained in our culture that students who don't march along are often admonished, questioned and considered failures," Selingo writes. "The decades-long march to college for everyone at 18 has actually closed off rather than opened up options for teenagers and twenty-somethings."

To be sure, the traditional four-year college curriculum remains the goal of choice for the more academically inclined young people, but not everyone is ready for college and many teenagers have talents and skills that could be more productively employed in other fields -- such as manufacturing where the shortage of skilled workers is a major headache for industry.

"As I travelled the country the last two years talking to employers of all sizes and in all sectors of the economy, what I heard most is the worry they have about filling so-called middle-skills positions in advanced manufacturing, health care and information technology," Selingo says. "Employers told me they have a healthy supply of talent for their white-collar office jobs that usually require a bachelor's degree and sometimes a masters or Ph.D. But that if manufacturing has any hope of making a rebound in the U.S., there is a desperate need for younger workers with technical hands-on skills that require training after high school"

Selingto describes the Apprentice School in Newport News, Virginia, where students choose from one of more than 20 occupational areas. They are paid an annual salary of $54,000 by the final year of the program -- $10,000 above that of the average college grad -- and afterward are guaranteed a job with the military contractor that operates Newport News Shipbuilding.

The school is just as selective as Harvard and receives 4,000 applications a year for only 230 spots. The students graduate debt free, which must sound like heaven to young people looking at the massive debt load that often attends four-year colleges. I have written about other similar programs out there. We need more bright young workers with real world skills. Apprenticeship programs are one answer, and I believe probably the best answer.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. April 2016