Everyone from Occupy Wall Street to those who occupy the White House have noticed the widening of the gap between rich and poor. It has fueled resentment throughout the country beginning with the TARP bailout of the Too Big To Fail banks and the tone-deaf tendency among its recipients to continue to pay multi-million dollar bonuses to their executives.
There will always be people who get rich on Wall Street. The problem isn’t that bankers make too much money and the solution is not for the government to redistribute wealth.
The greater challenge is the economic prospects of the middle class. A new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concludes, “with manufacturing and certain low-skill tasks increasingly becoming automated… the demand for information-processing and other high-level cognitive and interpersonal skills is growing”. Throughout the 23 industrialized economies included in the study, “literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills” are lacking. By now, we shouldn’t be surprised that the United States ranked 21 out of 23 in these critical skills.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about manufacturing in the United States (The Ford Fusion and How the Media Got It Wrong (Again)). I cited a study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) that projects that the US will again be a global center for manufacturing due to lower costs of labor, energy and transportation. But, it’s not a bed of roses. Among the risks cited by BCG is the skills gap among American workers.
But, what skills are we talking about? Yes, it’s true that our primary and secondary schools are failing us. But, would fixing that problem solve the larger problem of a skills gap?
Don’t look to the government, the school board or the teachers’ union for the solution. If you’re the parent of a school aged kid, the place to look for a solution is the mirror. Start by second guessing an ingrained assumption. Sending your kid to a four-year college will not guarantee him or her a good job. College grads now handle our customer service complaints, check us in at the Marriott and help us setup our iPhones in the Apple Store. None of those jobs are high paying nor are they the first step on the corporate ladder to the executive suite. And, they don’t pay enough to raise a family or pay off student loans.
To solve the skills gap, we need to expand our idea of what constitutes an education.
Corporate executives can find all the engineers, financial analysts and marketing professionals they need by sending their recruiters to the top universities. And, they do. There is a well-established process by which this type of recruiting has been taking place for the last 60 or 70 years. So, if your kid is an A student, by all means, send them to the best university you can afford.
But, finding employees with the skills to support computer networks, assist on a medical research project or operate a CNC machine is a greater challenge. None of these professions truly require a four-year degree. They require technical skills coupled with a work ethic and personal habits valued by employers.
The answer to this challenge will spring bottoms up from companies working with local governments and institutions like community colleges.
In Texas, Houston Community College provides training and certification to work on oilrigs to satisfy growing demand in the energy industry. In Minnesota, Anoka-Ramsey Community College works with local manufacturers to provide the specific training needed to work in a modern factory -- geometric dimensioning, process control and measuring tolerances. A non-profit institution, Corporate Voices for Working Families has developed a set of best practices – a blueprint, if you will – for employers to work with local colleges and community colleges with a goal of increasing employment among graduates.
College tuition is increasing 8% per year, well more than inflation and certainly more than real wages, which have remained flat for more than a decade. Parents are right to question the value of a degree that leaves them or their children saddled with debt. But, we shouldn’t expect the solutions to come from Washington or the state capital. Industry will drive the demand for training and education to close the gap. Competitive enterprises will develop the programs to satisfy their needs.
It all starts with the students, the job seekers. They must take responsibility for demanding the skills necessary to get a good job with strong career prospects. They must have the support of those who pay most of the bills for their education – their parents.
Blaming institutions of government for their failures will not get your kid a good job. Taking responsibility for the outcome, discovering what employers want and getting the training and education you need, will.
WHO WILL LEAD?