Vol 29, Issue 36 Print Issue

Guest Column: Schools and the Talent Shortage

You’d think that in this economy, job openings would barely see the light of day before getting snapped up by eager applicants. That’s not the case in the manufacturing sector, where high-quality, high-paying jobs sit vacant — sometimes for months, sometimes indefinitely — because of a shortage of manufacturing workers.

According to a recent Skills Gap study conducted by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting, two-thirds of business respondents report a moderate to severe shortage of qualified, available workers. Last spring, the San Antonio Manufacturers Association shed local light on this problem, estimating more than 1,500 open jobs in the area remained unfilled due to a lack of skilled workers. Training programs from the Texas Workforce Commission help to bridge the gap, but we need a long-term, comprehensive solution.

Texas isn’t alone, as the skilled-talent shortage is acute nationwide and around the globe. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for every three skilled workers who retire, only one person steps up to fill the gap. Globally, more jobs for skilled tradespeople go unfilled than any other category of employment, according to a recent survey by ManpowerGroup.

A number of factors may be causing the manufacturing talent shortage in Texas.

First, there’s a persistent misconception about the types of jobs the manufacturing sector has to offer. Historically, manufacturing has been a primary source of middle-class jobs, especially for workers without college degrees. Some parents may think their children need four-year college degrees to get good jobs and mistakenly rule out manufacturing fields as an option. But today, manufacturing has diversified and manufacturers are clamoring for qualified workers with a variety of specialties, from welders to engineers, process managers to pipe fitters, and risk analysts to chemists.

With proper job training, associate's degrees or technical certificates earned after high school, workers can land many high-quality manufacturing jobs. Through Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, students can begin this training while still in high school. Other manufacturing jobs require bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degrees. For example, Texas will need to fill 758,000 science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) jobs by 2018. But regardless of specialty or education, manufacturing jobs in Texas command average starting salaries of $70,000 a year.

In addition to addressing misconceptions about manufacturing jobs, Texas needs a flexible educational framework that meets the needs of all students and the wide array of Texas employers hoping to hire them. To groom this diverse workforce, we must create more education options for our high school students.

A flexible education system would recognize different talents and provide varied approaches so students get the education they need. Whatever paths young people wish to take after high school, we must sustain the state’s K-12 emphasis on educating all students so they are ready to succeed after graduation. To achieve this readiness, all students must be exposed to a rigorous, relevant curriculum with coursework that clearly links what they’re learning to jobs in the real world. TAM is optimistic that lawmakers can find solutions that achieve this flexibility without undermining the state’s accountability system.

Taking deliberate action to ensure Texans are educated, well trained and equipped for the complexity of a competitive global economy has to be a priority. Otherwise businesses will be forced to look elsewhere for workers.

TAM and its members are working to shift understanding about the industry and the types of jobs we create today, but for its part, the state must also ensure a solid foundation is laid by our state’s public schools, community colleges and universities.

It’s heartening to see both the Texas House and Senate considering these issues ahead of the next legislative session that begins in January. Solving this issue can be a “win-win-win” for all Texans: for students who will be able to land high-wage jobs, for Texas industry employers who will be able to replace retiring “boomers” with a ready and trained workforce and for Texas taxpayers who deserve a nimble public education system that prepares students to succeed in the modern economy.

Manufacturers’ message to parents, students and job seekers is simple and consistent: For those eyeing technical certificates or associate’s degrees, manufacturing has high-quality, high-paying jobs for you. For those pursuing bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degrees, manufacturing has high-quality, high-paying jobs for you. If Texas can embrace flexibility for all students, manufacturers can send out the clarion call about these jobs: “Come and get ‘em.”

Tony Bennett is the president of the Texas Association of Manufacturers.