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April 27 2015

Making Blue-Collar Jobs Cool –Again

Patrice J. Lee

The failed Every-Kid-to-College mantra left us with an unprepared workforce, but private companies are making manufacturing jobs attractive and closing the skills gap on their own.

Over the past few decades, college has been pushed as the only path to career success. My generation was raised hearing that we all must go to college to get an education and only then can we a good job with benefits and a future.

An educated workforce is critical today, but this every-kid-to-college model has failed to deliver this kind of workforce. It has even harmed our workforce and made high-paying jobs that can be meaningful and require skills unacceptable to college grads.

It is time to realize that college is not the best route to success for every student, and that this model fails to account for that. Instead, parents have been brainwashed to think that if their children don’t go to college they are failures. Yet, too many students arrive at two-and four-year colleges unprepared and need remedial classes just to meet basic requirements. College drop-out rates are climbing and those young people are relegated to low-skill minimum wage jobs, but are still on the hook for the student loan debt they incurred.

Meanwhile, college produces white-collar workers and creates a stigma around skilled blue-collar jobs or working with your hands.

The biggest pushers of the idea that college is essential to the good life are politicians and, not surprisingly, educators. Yet our kids aren't prepared. High schools are turning students without basic skills, while programs that teach skills or garner interest in going to trade schools or seeking apprenticeships are downplayed. 

It's no wonder we have a 14 percent unemployment rate among 18-29 year olds and 1.8 million young people who are so discouraged that they’ve dropped out of the job market. Yet, we have millions of unoccupied jobs. As Baby Boomers retire, the opportunities will abound, but young people aren’t skilled to meet the basic requirements of these positions.

Houston is one of many cities dealing with these problems. Instead of waiting for policymakers and schools to act, companies hungry for talent are innovating – using marketing and outreach strategies to reach college students, college dropouts, high school students, and even getting primary and secondary school students interested in the sciences. They’re making blue-collar cool again.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Chevron Phillips, a joint venture between energy giants Chevron Corp. and Phillips 66, is among dozens of companies that are spending millions of dollars in the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area to train a local labor force that they say is unprepared to hold the jobs they are creating.

It is a sizable private-sector effort to address a gap between available jobs and the skill level of the local population—one that speaks to the national challenge of narrowing income inequality and reviving the sagging middle class.

Well-paying blue-collar jobs abound in Houston and other parts of the country, but employers complain that it’s hard to fill them due to a lack of technical training required to do them. The mismatch is pushing companies in some areas to take an active role in workforce development, a necessary step to improve the situation, said Joseph Fuller, at senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who has studied the issue.

The problem is perhaps more pressing in the Houston area, which over the next three years is expected to generate nearly 60,000 middle-skill jobs in the petrochemicals and construction sectors as plants expand and older workers retire, according to a study commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership. Many of them pay two to three times the minimum wage.

But while a high-school diploma might have been sufficient to land factory work in the past, many of the Houston jobs require technical training that students aren’t getting in public school. Many students aren’t even aware the jobs exist.

The result is that many jobs in greater Houston aren’t being filled by local workers. The metro area’s poverty rate rose to 16.4% in 2013 from 16.1% in 2005 according to U.S. Census data, even as the area’s economy expanded by 38% during that period, outpacing the country’s biggest cities.

Part of the problem behind the skilled-worker shortage, he and others say, is that until recently local high schools were channeling students toward four-year university degrees instead of technical careers.

But while more than 75% of Texas high-school graduates enroll in higher education, less than 30% of those who start college earn a bachelor’s degree, according to the latest statistics compiled by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a state agency.

Sending every kid to college requires a great deal of government intervention (much of it in the form of college loans). The financial aspects of this are as important as the thirst for knowledge. And, speaking of that knowledge, let's not get into what colleges are teaching our young people. Here's a hint, it's probably not about free markets and limited government.

Kudos to the companies that are leading change by making our workforce stronger. To get everyone back to work and to prepare our students for the workforce, we'll need more of this private initiative and innovation.

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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