Why blue-collar industries are facing such a massive skills shortage

When business leaders talk about a skills shortage, white-collar, degree-demanding jobs come to mind. But employment experts say the skills gap may be even more pressing for decent-paying jobs that don't require any college at all.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) predicts that U.S. companies will be facing two million job vacancies by 2025. And the American Welding Society contends that manufacturing industries will need 300,000 welders and welding instructors by 2020. Technology has replaced some jobs and made others obsolete. But a significant number of manufacturing jobs remain open with not enough people to fill them.

So, why aren’t jobseekers clamoring to get into manufacturing — where a welder can earn $90,000 a year?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) convened a panel in early April on this topic. The event, called the “State of the Workforce and the Future of Work,” illuminated rising concern over the skills gap that many “backbone” American industries face.

Fred Goff, CEO of Jobcase, an online community offering job searches, career development and support for blue-collar workers, told HR Dive that much of society believes the best path to a rewarding, prestigious career is a college degree and a job in finance, marketing, law, engineering or teaching. That leaves retail, trade, construction and manufacturing jobs facing serious perception challenges. The “image problem” that these blue-collar fields face has finally come home to roost — and employers are struggling to make up the difference. 

Who will fill those two million vacancies?

Goff says jobseekers who discover the range of blue-collar careers and how lucrative many are could be trained to fill the vacancies NAM predicts. Key among those jobseekers are women. Goff says women have strong, in-demand cognitive and collaborative skills and yet they’re seriously underrepresented in both the manufacturing and technology industries.

At the EEOC meeting, improving company diversity was touted as one way to alleviate some gaps. But it’s much easier said than done.

Michael D’Ambrose, SVP and CHRO for Archer Daniels Midland Company, laid some of the blame on the nation’s current education system, saying that the “failure of the nation’s education system to fill a diverse pool of people” is one reason manufacturers and construction companies are facing such huge gaps today. Women are often not told about potential opportunities in manufacturing or construction, leading to fewer of them entering those industries at all.

But even when women or minorities seek out such opportunities, many of them have small or near non-existent networks that limit their ability to find good jobs, Mason Bishop, principal at WorkED Consulting, told the EEOC panel. Finding a way to get underserved candidates into the right pipeline to find good blue-collar jobs starts early, but even then, companies and communities must work to ensure women and people of color remain in those industries.

Where are the high-paying jobs?

Blue-collar fields are desperate for talented workers, but few young Americans are aware thanks to the aforementioned image gap.

Few parents want their kids to work in such industries thanks to a society-wide push for four-year college and a perception that such jobs offer lower pay and backbreaking work, Dr. Aparna Mathur, resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told the EEOC panel.

But data contradicts that perception. Payscale.com’s wage comparisons between blue-collar and white-collar jobs show that a mid-career elevator installer earns on average $63,500 a year, while a mid-career civil engineer earns $61,611. The average annual pay for a mid-level construction contractor is about $59,927 versus $56,268 for a mid-level clinical laboratory scientist. A mid-career auto mechanic earns 47% more annually than a mid-career bank teller, who earns on average $21,714 a year.

The jobs are out there, but few potential employees know it.

In the long term, it won’t be a lack of jobs that will be the problem, but a mismatch between skills, Dr. Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told the panel. Strong training and retention systems be it paid apprenticeships or otherwise  can ensure that future employees remain both adaptable and capable, regardless of how the industries change.

How can employers and jobseekers connect?

Apprenticeships and more accessible training programs are an important way for blue-collar industries to catch potential employees who may not find college a good match. But portability of jobs and skills remain a sticking point. Some members of the panel discussed more tightly allying with local communities to ensure the pipelines are in place earlier and open to all members of the community, regardless of gender and ethnicity.

“Employers will do what we have to do to attract talent, and that will have to include paid leave."

Michael D'Ambrose

SVP and CHRO, Archer Daniels Midland Company

Adding widely recognized credential programs for certain skills may be one way to ensure employees stay within an industry. Employees could seek training to obtain credentials, which they could then take to employers as proof of their skill. The more skilled an employee becomes, the more likely they will be promoted. A program of this type would ensure employees have both horizontal and vertical mobility a key aspect of retention.

As far as getting people into the industry in the first place, the panel noted the power of paid leave, especially for women who often bear the brunt of caretaking duties at home.

“Employers will do what we have to do to attract talent, and that will have to include paid leave,” D’Ambrose said.

Getting women and minorities into working networks matters, too. Professional white-collar workers have LinkedIn for support, career advice and networking. Blue-collar workers need their own “LinkedIn,” says Goff. Jobcase is one service that was developed to fill that need.

Jobcase members come to the site to learn about a vocation that interests them, find out what training and skills are needed, and get support from the community to pursue their dream job.

About 80% of Jobcase’s community doesn’t visit LinkedIn, though he also said that it does serve as a companion to the popular professional networking site.

To stall a coming talent crisis, employers must be willing to seek out potential employees where they are.

“There must be a willingness to walk to the places that have need,” Montez King, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, told the panel. “We hear all the cries for diversity but there’s no action.”

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