Much ado has been made about the loss of blue collar manufacturing jobs in Middle America, highlighting the supply and demand gap that exists in developed nations for modern blue collar jobs. Jobs are somehow disappearing from within the borders of one nation and being unceremoniously supplanted into another, with hungry corporations eager to take advantage of supply chains that utilize cheap labour and lax environmental regulations. This narrative presupposes that when the jobs leave, they do not return. But, current population statistics show the total number of jobs in the United States has increased by over 10M from 2011 to today. So where are all these jobs no one seems to have?
This is commonly known as “the skills gap”, wherein 39% of employers last year reported having difficulty filling positions due to a lack of available talent. This is not a post-2008 phenomenon – employers have long reported difficulties in finding qualified workers to fill positions.
Educational institutions have fared no better in training people to plug the gap; Post-secondary learning institutions themselves have difficulty keeping up with technological advancement and employer demand. This lack of training for the real world is evidenced by the experience of the average university graduate – In the United States, 45% of all workers with Bachelor’s degrees are underemployed, meaning they do not work in fields that require the active use of their education or degree. Educational institutions often fail to imprint the current technical skills needed to enter most industries, leaving graduates unprepared for the realities of the job market and facing increasing employer demands to even be considered. In the example of the graphic designer, art schools still teach much of their curriculums in a print-based format, with the primary technological training being website development – hardly appropriate training for the demands of the workforce.
Equally inappropriate is asking every unemployed factory worker to return to school and earn a four year degree simply to get another job. Many possess neither the financial means, nor the desire, to return to academia. But a report released by the Harvard Business Review showed that increased wage growth has risen sharply for industries with the swiftest technological advancement (the average wage in health care is 49% higher than it was before the introduction of the workplace computer, compared with the measly 2% increase in wage growth in manufacturing). So what’s the solution to filling the existing skills gap with underemployed workers?
As knowledge is increasingly commoditized, a demand for workers to continuously learn through their careers (becoming lifelong learners) has emerged. The model of compressing education into the earlier, more formative years of an individuals life and reaping rewards later is not enough when the most-sought after skills on the market change every 5-10 years. Extra training is now understood by 54% of adults in the labor force as a necessity in working life. Newer forms of education, designed to be less time-intensive and more skills-based, have shown significant promise.
But does all this translate to unskilled workers? 80% of users of MOOCs have previous university degrees, and unskilled workers may simply lack the desire to stare at a screen and be lectured at. But opportunities to help those with the desire to learn and not the means exist – trade unions and governments can introduce funding programmes to help provide the financial capacity to enter academia for those who feel it to be valuable. But for those who do not wish to change, the future seems less bright. And a future with heightened inequality and division between sectors may emerge as knowledge is increasingly viewed as a tradable commodity in the domestic and international economy.
Here lies the responsibility of government. He who promises to forget no one must then think not to improve the immediacy of life, but to develop systems that sustain this promised success. Investing into education both in current and alternative forms is a crucial step in creating norms that ensure the only thing lost in an increasingly automated economy is not our jobs, but our fear of progress. And for training for the jobs of tomorrow – what better time to start than today?