Community Colleges Are the Answer to the Skills Gap Crisis
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Community Colleges Are the Answer to the Skills Gap Crisis

The American job market is approaching a cliff. Community colleges offer the solution.

For decades now, American economists have been predicting an employment crisis in the United States. This crisis is caused by numerous factors, but the defining problem is known as the “skills gap”—which is to say, the gap between open jobs that are waiting to be filled, and workers qualified to fill them.

The skills gap exists for three main reasons:

  • Demographics. The Baby Boomers were an exceptionally large generation for their time, representing roughly 76M births in the United States. Subsequent generations were smaller, with Gen X accounting for only 55M, and the Millennials (an “echo boom”) numbering 62M. While immigration has caused an influx of younger workers in the American workforce, this can only account for so much. As Boomers retire, they will leave behind vacant jobs without the population to fill them.
  • Perception. Many Boomers made careers in jobs that today are considered “blue collar,” but they pushed their children to go to college and aspire to “white collar” work, on the assumption it would pay better and afford a higher quality of life. However, many of today’s skilled jobs not only pay well, but use more sophisticated technology, erasing the divide between “white-” and “blue-collar” labor.
  • Education. Many students are wary of taking on student debt, afraid of entering a tough labor market. Yet many are also unaware of the opportunities available in skills gap industries, where some post-high school education is needed, but not as much as a four-year degree.

Addressing the skills gap is a growing concern among employers and economists. Educational counselors should consider where their students might fit, and direct them to educational resources that can help them choose an educational path in one of these high-demand fields. Here are some of the top industries where skilled labor is at a premium.

1. Manufacturing.

There are two common assumptions about modern manufacturing in America. The first is that manufacturing is becoming increasingly automated, with robots taking over many of the assembly jobs once performed by people. The second is that, because of automation, manufacturing jobs are disappearing.

While the first is true, the second is only a partial truth. Automation is taking over many jobs that are undesirable to workers, and therefore harder to fill. But a joint 2018 study from Deloitte and the The Manufacturing Institute showed that the skills gap may leave as much as 2.4M jobs unfilled by 2028—about 53% of the jobs that are expected to become available by that time.

The reason for this is that the automation that is taking over line work is opening a new set of more advanced jobs programming and tending to these machines. Manufacturing executives in the Deloitte study listed digital skills, programming skills for robots and automation, and working with tools and technology among the most important skills needed for workers to fill these openings.

2. Construction.

Many infrastructure networks across the country, from roads and bridges to dams and power grids, need repair. These jobs require training in concrete pouring, iron work, electrical work, and carpentry, among others. Job prospects across the construction field vary by specialization, but overall the industry continues to face a shortage of skilled labor, with 80% of contracting firms reporting difficulty in finding workers, resulting in project delays on work sites.  

Many of these jobs require apprenticeship or on-the-job training, but workers can improve their employment prospects through additional courses in blueprint reading, welding, and mechanical drawing. In some cases, advanced mathematical skills are also important.

3. Renewable energy.

The move toward green energy is ending some jobs in the coal and natural gas industry, but it’s opening a whole new line of work in renewable energy. In particular, wind turbine technicians are expected to be in high demand, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating a 61% growth in jobs from 2019 to 2029. Windtechs earn a median pay of over $25/hr., and can become qualified after taking a certification program.

While windtechs are one area of expected job growth, focus on renewable energy is also driving up the job prospects for electricians more generally, with demand for solar photovoltaic installers expected to grow almost as much as for windtechs. Electricians make a median wage of $27/hr., and earn their training through apprenticeship and through programs at a technical college.

4. Nursing.

Of all the jobs currently in demand, no shortage is likely to be as critical as that of the nurse practitioner. As Baby Boomers move deeper into retirement, many will begin needing more nursing care at precisely the same time that many nurses are leaving the workforce.

Furthermore, while the full consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on the nursing profession are as yet unknown, it has doubtless taken a toll. Pre-pandemic estimates projected employment for registered nurses (RNs) to grow by 10% by 2029, and for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), that number is even higher—up to 45%. Post-pandemic, those numbers may be higher.

Aspiring nurses can take several paths to becoming an RN, including through an associate’s degree program, an approved nursing degree program, or a bachelor’s program. Nurses who earn an associate’s degree or a nursing program can often earn their bachelor’s degree through RN-to-BSN programs that make the overall educational burden more manageable. And, with a bachelor’s degree in hand, RNs earn a master’s degree to become an APRN, which has a median wage of over $55/hr., or $115,000 per year.

That said, students who aren’t interested in going back to school to advance their career can consider becoming a physical therapist assistants or aid. This career requires only an associate’s degree and is expected to grow by 29% by 2029, with a median wage of $23.55/hr. 

5. Information Technologies.

Finally, few professional skills are as ubiquitous across a range of jobs as IT. As technology becomes more integral to modern life, skills ranging from IT technician to cybersecurity specialist are growing in demand. Many of these skills have relevance across professional fields, making post-secondary education in these subjects an even more valuable asset.

Today, programs in IT range from certification to advanced degrees. In many professions, on the job experience is one of the most crucial requirements, meaning that those aspiring to this career can do well by achieving a certificate or associate’s degree, and then building the rest of their skill set on the job. All told, occupations in computers and information technology are expected to grow by 11% by 2029, making the field one of the most in-demand careers on the market.

Community colleges need to work with schools to spread the word about career opportunities in high-demand fields.

The skills gap can be addressed, but it requires a consistent messaging from community colleges to get the word out. These jobs should be the perfect fit for many young students who don’t want to enter an expensive four-year program: skilled, fulfilling work with good wages, benefits and long-term stability. Best of all, many workers can become qualified within months through a certificate program, or can complete their training part time while gaining on-the-job experience.

Community colleges can’t communicate the full value of their certificate and associate’s degree programs through billboard slogans, and it’s clear that word of mouth has been persistently ineffective in growing interest. Instead, community colleges should devote their marketing resources toward fully developed written materials, such as print brochures and online articles, that lay out the facts and figures about industry demand, compensation, and educational qualifications for these positions.

The next generation of the workforce are critical of their educational options and savvy at discovering alternatives. What they need is high-quality information to help them make these consequential decisions about their future.

If you need help creating these resources, talk to us. At Aperture Content Marketing, we specialize in researching and developing articles for community colleges that are full of exactly the information students need to find the right career path for their strengths and interests. Contact us today to learn more.

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