Building Skills for Tomorrow’s Workforce Demands

Is your curriculum going to gear you up for a real world workplace?

Is college going to get you ready to jump into the fast lane?

The buzzword here and the one that keeps college administrators up late at night is the concept of skills. Do you have the skills that make you ready for tomorrow’s workforce? That’s been the hot question for college directors for eons, but the question has heated up in recent years.

Bragging rights for colleges depends on how many graduates pull down jobs that provide for a solid future for their graduates. That leaves today’s college student with one critical decision: You need to combine your natural interests with a skill in high demand. If you can attach that to technology, you have yourself job with a future. With decent pay and a future, I might add.

Related: MMFBT 022 – Transitioning From School to the Working World

Here’s today’s most obvious answer: healthcare.

Building Skills for Tomorrow's Workforce Demands
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The reason you hear this day after day is because health care is in high demand and the field is bursting with technological advances. Radiology, anesthesiology, nursing, physical therapy — none of these job descriptions are just get the work done, anymore. They now involve getting the work done on the in a digital world. Nurses no longer just take your temp. They navigate a labyrinth of computer programs to input patient information, access charts and schedule appointments.

Where are the high skilled workers now? Answer: Not far away. In fact, there is good news for businesses owners who are out to hire highly skilled workers for companies that specialize on science-oriented research or production and other specializes tasks.

Let’s start with the myth first. The myth is that the high unemployment rate can be blamed, in part, on the lack of highly skilled workers willing or available for the new jobs that have magically become more prevalent or more critical since 2007, at the onset of the Great Recession. This myth follows a simple economic premise that newspapers love to push, a kind of “follow the money” trail of what-ifs that are, in fact, quick conclusions to rudimentary questions.

In this case, economists and pundits generally agree that recessions come with large lay-offs. Every type of business out there from factories to luxury retail stores to hot dog stands lay off workers until business picks up again.

Related: Getting Work Experience By Volunteering

After a while, when people begin to wonder when the labor market will pick up again, media types call employers and ask “What’s going on?” to which the employers always say, “Well, funny thing: We would hire more people, but we can’t find skilled workers. Where did they go? We have high-paying jobs and can’t seem to get them filled.”

Applied to the latest recession, that means eight million people lost their jobs, swelling the ranks of the unemployed to 15 million, but when SimCore Electronics (just to make up a name) tried to find one who could read a blueprint, they couldn’t find one (out of 15 million), so the job went unfilled.

What feeds the myth is this premise, which is that factories lay off tens of thousands or millions of workers and then discover that they can maintain high levels of production with their smaller work force. The explanation here is that the factories were over-staffed before the recession and the management (thanking their lucky stars) just learned a lesson in how to run a more efficient operation. Secondly, everyone assumes technology swooped in and the masses of displaced workers can be replaced by automation, a recession just happening to be a convenient time to make that happen.

Any of this sound out of whack to you? There’s a recession and, suddenly and coincidentally the robots take over?

Companies just happened to be bloated with under-educated workers who were the ones who lost their jobs? Colleges are so out of touch with reality that post-recession they will have to revamp their entire curriculum to better serve a sudden burst of highly-skilled technology needs in the work force they didn’t anticipate?

Related: Getting Relevant Work Experience While You’re Still in School

Here’s the good news: None of this is exactly bunk, but all of it is a convenient exaggeration of what is going on. Sure, local colleges revamp their programs from time to time, but they do that even in prosperous times. It’s just that during high unemployment everyone paints change as a single-minded reaction to the downturn.

It turns out, the lack of topical colleges programs is not the problem. Call your local staffing agency if you want proof. There are workforce solutions for science, engineering, software, and design – you name it. Don’t be fooled by headlines.

Similarly, factories move toward automation even in good times. What is likely is that factory owners turn up the speed on the assembly line to get more production out of their skeletal crews and the remaining workers don’t complain because they could be the next one to lose their job. That doesn’t sound like higher efficiency that can be sustained to me.

And it isn’t. Why? Because efficiency is the name of the game during prosperous times, too. Sure, there might be a few too many workers around before a recession, but how many, really? Certainly, prior to the recession, U.S. payrolls (the largest single expense for many businesses) did not have eight million superfluous workers living off the fat of some company’s poor management skills.

How do we know this? First, look at production. It took U.S. automobile companies until last year to produce as many cars as they did in 2005 and 2006 – the recession having been preceded by a prolonged slump in the automotive industry. So, frankly, they did not keep up high levels of production with their smaller crews at all. It wasn’t even mere happenstance; they pared down production on purpose, because the demand for cars was not there.

The Economic Policy Institute provides the rest of the answer. In a study released in January, the think tank took on the question of “Is There Really A Shortage of Skilled Workers?” The data they found was telling.

They found, first, that at every educational level, unemployed rose during the recession. To look at the extremes, the unemployment rate for those with less than a high school education rose from 10.3 percent to very frightening 15.9 percent.

Unemployment is lower for those with advanced degrees, but due the recession, unemployment for the highest education level workers nearly doubled, climbing from 1.7 percent to 3.2 percent.

The study also found that unemployment rose from 2007 to 2012 in every work category from food preparation to engineering to legal to management to healthcare practitioners.

The number of unemployment also “vastly outnumbered the number of job openings across the board,” wrote Heidi Shierholz.

More details emerged that showed a different problem was in play here. The study found the number of work hours did not escalate (it was down almost across the board) and there was “no evidence of wages being bid up,” which would be indicative of a shortage of a skilled labor shortage. In other words, if companies really could not find scientists or engineers, wages for those jobs would jump as skilled workers enjoyed being in a position of high demand.

Do you see where this is going? There was no labor market data that suggested skilled workers were in the catbird seat or that skills were desperately lacking in the workforce.

This is good news for those with start-up dreams and worries that skilled workers have disappeared. They have not. The evidence shows the lack of demand for products, not production problems, are behind the current slowdown. As Shierholz wrote, “It’s the demand, stupid.” When customers show up, there will be plenty of skilled workers out there when you need them.

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