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4 Ways to Close the Skills Gap and Fill 4 Million Jobs

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People in the United States continue to struggle with chronic unemployment. One of the most frequently cited figures this year shows that even while 11 million Americans are currently unemployed, four million jobs continue to sit unfilled. There has been some debate about why that is, but one reason is likely the so-called "skills gap." Although there are four million available jobs, American workers simply don't have the skills to fill them.

Unfortunately, there's no quick fix. Closing the skills gap will take a concerted effort and commitment to retraining and educating our workforce. We can only close the gap by comprehensively investing in workers of all ages -- from students to seniors. Only by making this effort and taking it seriously can we ensure we have the workers to fill open jobs, now and in the future. Here's how:

1) Train our kids in STEM.

According to a recent report from the Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education, employment in professional, scientific and technical services is projected to grow 29 percent by the year 2020, adding more than two million new jobs to the U.S. economy. Yet many of those jobs will require that we bring in outside talent, as the majority of U.S. students lack foundational skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Preparing students for these jobs must begin far before the college level. In 2012 only 31 percent of high school graduates taking the ACT were academically ready for college coursework in science. If we don't make a serious investment in science and technology education starting at the elementary school level, students won't be prepared to even think about studying these subjects in college, let alone pursuing them as a career.

The Obama Administration's Educate to Innovate program has called for preparing 100,000 new and effective STEM teachers over the next decade. That is a good start, but unless we make real investments in STEM education at the local, state and federal levels, students will not be prepared to take on the jobs of the future.

2) Help students earn credentials that matter.

For unemployed or underemployed workers who need to gain specific skills, community colleges are often a good option. Community colleges generally have open admissions, so most people are eligible to take classes that will equip them for real-world professions. Yet, many people struggle to manage life and complete the credentialing programs they have enrolled in at the same time.

Thankfully, many organizations in the private and nonprofit sectors are stepping in to address this reality. Skills for America's Future has established a national network of more than 40 employers and 300 community college partners dedicated to training would-be workers. The University of Phoenix and Goodwill Industries International have launched a new initiative to train people in traditionally underserved communities, providing Goodwill employees across the United States and Canada with reduced tuition for degree programs, as well as certificate programs, professional development courses, and scholarship opportunities. Goodwill has also been working with the American Association of Community Colleges through the Community College/Career Collaboration to form partnerships across the country to increase college and career success for thousands of vulnerable individuals who lack a college or career credential by providing them with easy access to education, job-specific training and supportive services. By tapping into the educational expertise of community colleges, Goodwill is able to effectively serve the needs of workers with financial challenges by providing them access to financial aid to fund college studies and progress to receive award degrees and training certificates.

3) Invest in job training.

With employers catching on to the fact that the skills gap is costing them money in the long run, many are taking the issue into their own hands and investing in job training. According to a recent Career Builder study, nearly half (49 percent) of employers plan to train workers who don't have experience in their industries and hire them in 2014, up 10 percent over 2013. Many of these large companies have realized that it's worth it in the long run to invest in job training now.

Similarly, at Goodwill, we harness the power of donated goods to fund job training programs, equipping workers across the country to earn good jobs. Last year Goodwill helped more than nine million people train for careers in industries such as banking, IT and health care, to name a few. Additionally, through our virtual career fairs, we help connect workers with employers. During the upcoming Goodwill Industries Week, Goodwill agencies across the country will thank the public for its continued support of our mission -- helping to put people to work through the power of job training.

4) Re-train older workers.

Older Americans are consistently among those most likely to face long-term unemployment, yet they are also among those who want and need to keep working. While older workers bring lifelong career skills to the table, they are often in need of re-training to fill the jobs currently available. Employers are increasingly realizing that recruiting and retaining older workers is valuable to the bottom line, and organizations including AARP have launched services specifically designed to equip older workers with new skills.

From elementary schools to community colleges, from students to senior citizens, the only way we can ensure our workforce is ready to close the skills gap is by investing in education and job training now.