Closing the Skills Gap

...Our natural resources are at least as great as those of any other nation. We believe that in ability to develop and take advantage of these resources the average man of this nation stands at least as high as the average man of any other. Nowhere else in the world is there such an opportunity for a free people to develop the fullest extent all its powers of body, of mind, and of that which stands above both body and mind -- character. Much has been given us from on high, and much will rightly be expected of us in return. Into our care the ten talents have been entrusted; and we are to be pardoned neither if we squander and waste them, nor yet if we hide them in a napkin; for they must be fruitful in our hands.

-Theodore Roosevelt, Thanksgiving Day Proclamation (1907)

President Roosevelt wrote these words as advancements in technology allowed the American middle class to emerge for the first time. As we take stock of the many things for which we are thankful, we are at another defining moment. Our economy is improving but we still have room to grow. To speed growth, we must close the widening skills gap that exists in communities across the country. Many unemployed Americans lack the skills to stand at least as high as their competitors in foreign markets, and they cannot fill the jobs available in their communities. Inaction now will lead to the unpardonable squandering of a big moment for the American worker.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates nearly four million full-time positions in the U.S. are unfilled, a figure expected to rise significantly in the coming decade. In the manufacturing sector alone, the consulting firm Deloitte estimates the national skills shortage has left approximately 600,000 vacancies and, according to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), 67 percent of U.S. manufacturers reported a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers. If we find a way for American workers to access the vocational training, practical skills-based degrees, and professional certification pathways necessary to take advantage of these opportunities, our economy can thrive.

This shortage is not a weakness of the American workforce, but rather, a tremendous opportunity. Filling these jobs could reduce the national unemployment rate by as much as three percent and generate new consumer-led economic growth. In my congressional district alone, the New York State Department of Labor estimates more than 3,700 job openings await workers with 21st Century skillsets. Often, they require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor's degree.

Many vacant positions pay well and sustain families. NAM reports that the annual average salary of manufacturing workers is slightly above $77,000, and the average entry-level salary for manufacturing engineers is about $60,000. While structural economic changes may prevent total manufacturing employment in the U.S. from reaching pre-recession levels, advanced technologies, increased foreign labor wages, and the rising availability of affordable energy sources created completely new jobs since the recession began.

In northern New York, local and regional collaboration has propelled middle-skilled workers to a standing at least as high as our global competitors. Earlier this year, a New York Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in my district joined local manufacturers, the area workforce investment board, and economic officials to teach high school students computer-controlled industrial machine operation skills. This group identified a skills gap and used local resources to give willing workers the skills they need to land well-paying, locally-available jobs.

There are more examples in northern New York. In 2011, Clarkson University partnered with Clinton Community College and the New York state government so thousands of New York high school graduates can access and earn the associate degrees required for jobs in the technology and manufacturing sectors. Similarly, the New York State Pathways in Technology Early College High School partnership tailors its curricula to the local job market's needs and matches graduates with available jobs.

As baby-boomers retire, the demand for skilled tradespeople in advanced manufacturing and other sectors will continue growing. The Boston Consulting Group and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate that by 2020, the nation could face a shortfall of around 875,000 machinists, welders, industrial-machinery operators, and other skilled manufacturing professionals.

We are rightly thankful for our nation's history of productivity and innovation. To build on our economic strengths, the public and private sectors must collaboratively re-orient our schools and connect them to better-developed networks of skills-based training opportunities tailored to local business needs. If we are successful, we will enhance America's long-term economic competitiveness. We will have heeded Teddy Roosevelt's warning and made the most of our workforce and the resources we are blessed to possess.