Skilled Worker Shortage: A Unique Opportunity for Career Counselors
By Mike Wilson
Most counselors are aware of the skilled tradespersons' role in helping to develop the nation’s infrastructure, just as most are aware of the acute shortage of skilled tradespersons. In spite of this awareness, many lack an understanding of the extent of the shortage in this seemingly “invisible” market. To effectively help students and job seekers, counselors must be cognizant of all opportunities available in the skilled labor market.
Understanding the Skilled Labor Market
A recent analysis by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) estimates the United States currently faces a shortage of approximately 80,000 to 100,000 skilled manufacturing workers (BCG, 2012). It also found that the skills gap “will soon become a serious problem if not addressed.” The average age of a high-skill manufacturing worker is 56 years old; as these workers begin to retire, BCG estimates this shortage could worsen to nearly 875,000 machinists, welders, insdustrial-machinery mechanics and industrial engineers by 2020 (BCG, 2012). This skills gap provides an array of career choices for students and job seekers in practically any industry and geographic location.
Common skilled trades include, but are certainly not limited to, electricians, plumbers, machinists, welders, and facility managers as well as those in the repair and maintenance industry. These are trade careers and they cut across most industries. These careers also require specific training and sometimes an apprenticeship. Skilled workers are found in many areas of employment. While much focus has been on the manufacturing skilled labor shortage, many other sectors of the U.S. economy are facing similar shortages. These sectors include the fields of healthcare, information technology, transportation as well as the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) areas.
The manufacturing industry for example, is making a big comeback thanks to the efforts of President Obama and his commitment to bringing back domestic manufacturing jobs. Two billion dollars in funding has been allocated to ramp up community college offerings, directly impacting the skills gap that so many American companies are experiencing, due, in part, to the devaluing of the skilled labor jobs. Additionally, “beef up” centers with state of the art training and recruiting initiatives have been created for the purpose of creating opportunities for young workers who are well suited and can commit to this industry for their working lives.
The goal of this federal initiative is to support new careers emerging from advancements in technology. In Colorado alone, a $25 million grant was awarded to a consortium of nine community colleges. The focus of the grant is to develop a pipeline of skilled advanced manufacturing workers. The U.S. Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez noted, “these investments in demand-driven skills training bring together education, labor, business and community leaders to meet the real-world needs of the changing global marketplace. These partnerships strengthen not only the American workforce, but the American economy as well” (US Dept. of Labor, 2013). The impact of this type of investment can be seen at Red Rocks Community College/ WarrenTech High School’s $1.9 million allocation to enhance the machining program and pool of skilled workers in Lakewood, Colorado. Altogether, the influence of these initiatives extend to the work career counselors do by helping to expand the career options made available to students and job seekers. Many of these labor careers are decent middle-income jobs that can provide a very respectable standard of living.
Career counselors can help change the existing perception of skilled labor careers and shine a spotlight on their viability by promoting an awareness of the realistic income and job satisfaction they offer to workers. In addition, many people view these jobs as dirty and/or unfulfilling and believe these are simply jobs, not careers. This belief is based on incorrect information about today’s job market and advancing facilities. Advances in technology have completely transformed the nature of skilled labor careers. These careers can be (and in many situations are) much more lucrative than many “respected” careers like teaching and nursing. While most Americans believe skilled workers are important to a stable economy, only one in three parents would like to see their children doing these jobs as adults. To change perceptions and fill these needs, career counselors can play an integral role in moving people past existing personal bias and/or stigma against the “blue-collar” jobs. Career counselors can help by first addressing their own bias, and then must help educate students, parents, school administrators, and clients regarding these careers in today’s job market.
Career counselors have an obligation to provide comprehensive options that provide students and clients with the best opportunity to succeed in the workplace. While skilled labor careers have generally been overlooked as respectable, long-term careers, these career options can no longer be ignored as a viable path for students given the nature of today’s job market. The following recommendations will help to further accomplish this goal.
- Educate students and parents about these career options. Many school professionals still subscribe to the idea of “university for all” approach to education. Therefore, changing false and/or negative perceptions begin with educating these important stakeholders. Counselors should help students realize that most of these career options may not necessarily require a college degree.
- Counselors can influence students’ choices significantly by making sure students are matched to careers suitable to their individual interests and talents.
- Promote “college and post-secondary training for all.” This is a slight change from the “university for all” approach that is currently being promoted in many areas. This alternative approach opens more options and opportunities for students.
- Career and technical training at the high school level should be considered a realistic option for all students.
- Career counselors can help school administrators who drive school decisions to see career and technical training as a viable choice for students. Counselors must help to reverse the phasing out of career and technical course offerings such as the industrial arts and consumer and family sciences at the local high school level.
As technology continues to transform the workplace and new job markets open due to the surge of high tech manufacturing, career counselors are on the frontline in changing perceptions of the skilled trade careers. Counselors can help position students to capitalize on this invisible, yet, lucrative job market. To do this effectively, they must be cognizant of, and embrace all opportunities available, including the skilled labor job market.
The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). October 2012. Skills gap in U.S. manufacturing is less pervasive than many believe. Retrieved from http://www.bcg.com/media/pressreleasedetails. aspx?id=tcm:12-118945
United States Department of Labor. News Release 9/18/2013. Retrieved from
Mike Wilson is a recently retired high school counselor from WarrenTech High School, a Career and Technical Option High School in the Jefferson County, Colorado public school district. He has been a public educator for 29 years. Mr. Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org