Higher Education Policy and Practice

Workforce Shortages – Do We or Don’t We?

It is my belief that workforce shortages have been creeping up on the US for the past 10 years. With our rapid emersion into economic globalization, these workforce shortages that are quickly developing will become a priority issue within the coming five years. This is not a question of having enough able bodied workers; it is a question of having the right match of our workers–workers with the proper skills and relevant education to fill the new jobs that will emerge in the coming years. A few years ago many people laughed at the suggestion of an emerging nanotechnology industry. Most have stopped laughing now with knowledge of the array of products currently utilizing nanotechnology. Biotechnology, or Bioscience, unheard of 10 years ago now has cities, regions or even states vying to be recognized as the center for biotechnology for our country or possibly the world.

The fact is that industries change, grow, shrink and disappear regularly. This is a phenomenon our country has experienced from its birth. A perfect example of this dynamic may be found in the auto industry, which has moved from one-at-a-time, hand-made units to a division-of-labor model, to the first assembly lines, to the advanced robotic lines currently in use. And the future of the gasoline powered automobile is now in some question, which could usher dramatic shifts in the auto industry and its supply chain. Computers, alien to us only 30 years ago, now permeate virtually every aspect of our society. That’s what’s different about industrial cycles today, the ever increasing rate of change caused by globalization and a number of societal changes that are influencing our capability to produce appropriately skilled workers.

Some of the major issues that are adding to the skilled worker shortage problem:

    • Our high school dropout rate is unacceptable.


  • Our academic standards and expectations are unacceptable.



  • Of those students that remain in high school, fewer and fewer are taking Science, Technology, Engineering and Math prep courses.



  • Colleges and universities have to spend more and more time on remedial work for incoming students.



  • We do not have the academic capacity to offer needed programs either in secondary or post secondary schools. Notable examples would be math, nursing, engineering, pharmacy and others.



  • Due to the lack of interest Community Colleges have dropped many courses in areas where serious shortages now exist, for example, Advanced welding, high tech milling and machining, many construction trade courses, etc.



  • Federal and State funding for education has been reduced.


Considering these factors and many others, our country must change course now. We must regain the edge we had for 200 years in invention, creativity, ingenuity, technology, and entrepreneurial leadership. If we do so, we will create new industries with associated higher technology jobs to replace those jobs and industries that will become obsolete. Protecting the status quo will result in sure economic decline.

Our leadership, government, education and industry must find ways to work together collaboratively toward this end. No single entity can do it alone. Government needs to set a very high, yet achievable, goal for our national focus; something akin to President Kennedy’s goal to put a man on the moon. Such a goal might be eliminating our dependence on non-renewable fuels. While our government should set the goal and create incentives and rewards for its achievement, the private sector must compete to develop products or processes to achieve those significant accomplishments.

Education must adjust in the variety of course offerings, and insure that we have the capacity to educate our future workforce, including the educators, that will be needed. To educate our workforce based on future needs and not on past trends, we must develop better forecasting practices and swifter program development time-lines. That will require real collaboration between government, industry and education. We think that successful collaboration is achievable for one very sound reason: We’ve helped clients who saw the need make it happen before.

What do you think?

Originally posted July 20, 2008

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