A change in perception can build America's skilled workforce

  • Mark Klein

    Mark Klein

By Mark Klein
Guest columnist
Posted9/4/2017 1:00 AM

The skills gap is real -- and Americans still haven't seen the worst of it. According to SkillsUSA, a national organization that provides career and technical education to more than 360,000 high school and college students, there are 5.6 million unfilled skilled jobs today -- 75 percent of which don't require a four-year degree. That's more than 4 million open U.S. jobs that don't require a college education!

Here in Illinois, we continue to lose thousands of manufacturing jobs:


• According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, Illinois finished with the weakest jobs growth rate and lost 11,000 manufacturing jobs -- one of the highest manufacturing job losses and worst in the region.

• This trend is continuing in 2017. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March that the Chicago area lost more than 1,000 manufacturing jobs since March 2016.

On top of the staggering number we face today, the National Association of Manufacturers reports that nearly 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs likely will be needed over the next decade, 2 million of which are expected to go unfilled due to the skills gap. At the same time, demand for housing construction will also continue to increase. If we cannot fill these positions with skilled workers, business and homeowners will see more delayed projects and higher home prices.

Many programs and organizations are addressing pieces of the skills gap, but what we need most is a change in perception. Americans need to be shown how fulfilling and lucrative a career in the trades can be.

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Unfortunately, as a country, we're actively discouraging young people from considering careers in the trades. Key influencers in shaping career paths -- parents, teachers and guidance counselors -- are stuck in a loop that preaches traditional, four-year degrees as the best path to success. But more people are realizing that a college degree, even with the enormous price tag, doesn't guarantee a job or decent pay.

We need to break the decades-old loop and challenge young people to explore the trades. It's critical for those key influencers to teach the advantages of skilled trades and how they might be a better fit for some lifestyles -- job flexibility, potentially high wages and the opportunity for creativity and pride of ownership. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the average U.S. manufacturer worker earned $81,289 annually in 2015, including pay and benefits. That's higher than the average salaries for many positions that require four-year college degrees.

As for featuring the trades academically, studies show that technical and vocational programs increase student engagement and keep students interested in school. We need to give students opportunities to explore careers in the trades and advocate for vocational education programs to be reintroduced to schools so that they know all their career options. Businesses should also be encouraged to invest in talent by offering internships, apprenticeship programs, summer jobs and co-op study opportunities on the local level to provide real-world, on-the-job experiences.

At Klein Tools, we believe in investing in our youth for a better future. We are proud to support thousands of technical schools through our partnerships with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC). Our annual "Electrician of the Year" program generates awareness of the skilled trades and recognizes how electricians contribute to their own communities. And we offer internships in our manufacturing facilities in Mansfield, Texas.


Here are some ways companies within skilled trade industries can help change perceptions:

• Market your jobs and products through the eyes of a millennial.

• Tell real-world stories of personal success and benefits.

• Serve as a voice for the industry and provide testimonials about how becoming a skilled tradesperson is life-changing.

What is your perception of someone in the skilled trades? What comes to mind when you hear manufacturing jobs? If what comes to mind is not a younger, talented, hard worker, you can do more to change the narrative.

Mark Klein is co-president of Lincolnshire-based Klein Tools.

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