5.6 Million Reasons to Stop Ignoring the Skills Gap

Mike Rowe, Toilet, Myth

Last week, my personal toilet at mikeroweWORKS Headquarters coughed up a disgusting clog of bad advice, noxious bromides, and odorous stereotypes, leaving my entire office awash in the horrific stench of myth and nonsense. With no licensed plumbers on hand, I was forced to address the problem myself, pulling each offending fallacy from it’s cardboard tube of allegorical poo, and confronting it with a mix of government statistics and righteous indignation. As always, my objective was twofold – to shine a light on America’s widening skills gap, and debunk the growing perception that “all the good jobs are gone.”

This latest effort is called “Hot Under the Blue Collar,” and it was sponsored by One Hour Heating and Air Conditioning, Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, and Mister Sparky Electric. Like so many other companies who rely on a skilled workforce, the people who own home service businesses are struggling to find the next generation of tradespeople who will keep our lights on and our pipes clear. Right now, thousands of good jobs – literally thousands – exist within these three companies alone. But no one seems to want them, and the reasons have nothing to do with low pay, poor benefits, or a lack of available training. They have more to do with the metaphorical miasma of misinformation currently clogging my commode. Consider:

Back in 2009, 12 million people were out of work. Most Americans assumed that could be fixed with 12 million new jobs. Thus, “job creation” became headline news. But then, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics quietly announced that companies were struggling to fill 2.1 million skilled positions. That statistic generated a lot of questions.

How could so many good jobs go unfilled when so many people were out of work? Why weren’t people lining up for these opportunities? Why weren’t apprenticeship programs exploding with eager applicants?

Democrats Mike Rowe, Chuck, Toiletblamed corporate greed. “Just offer workers more money,” they said, “and the skills gap will close itself.”

Republicans blamed the unemployed. “See? The jobs are out there,” they said. “Now get off your lazy ass and get one!”

Consequently, the skills gap became politicized, and ultimately overshadowed by unemployment figures, interest rates, inflation, and just about every other economic indicator. And so, the existence of 2.1 million good jobs got very little attention.

Now, eight years later, unemployment is down, interest rates are under control, and inflation is in check. But the overall labor participation rate is very low, and the skills gap is wider than ever. In fact, the latest numbers are out, and they are astonishing. According to the Department of Labor, America now has 5.6 million job openings.

Forget your politics for a moment, and consider the enormity of what’s happening here. Millions of people who have stopped looking for work, are ignoring 5.6 million genuine opportunities. That’s not a polemic, or a judgment, or an opinion. It’s a fact. And so is this: most of those 5.6 million opportunities don’t require a diploma – they require require a skill.

Unfortunately, the skilled trades are no longer aspirational in these United States. In a society that’s convinced a four-year degree is the best path for the most people, a whole category of good jobs have been relegated to some sort of “vocational consolation prize.” Is it any wonder we have 1.3 trillion dollars in outstanding student loans? Is it really a surprise that vocational education has pretty much evaporated from high schools? Obviously, the number of available jobs and the number of unemployed people are not nearly as correlated as most people assume.

I’m no economist, but the skills gap doesn’t seem all that mysterious – it seems like a reflection of what we value. Five and half million unfilled jobs is clearly a terrible drag on the economy and a sad commentary of what many people consider to be a “good job,” but it also represents a tremendous opportunity for anyone willing to learn a trade and apply themselves.

As long as Americans remain addicted to affordable electricity, smooth roads, indoor plumbing and climate control, the opportunities in the skilled trades will never go away. They’ll never be outsourced. And those properly trained will always have the opportunity to expand their trade into a small business. But if we don’t do something to reinvigorate the trades, and make a persuasive case for good jobs that actually exist, I’m afraid the metaphorical crap in my literal toilet will never go away, and millions of great opportunities will go down the drain.

In closing, please – don’t let anyone tell you that opportunity is dead in America. That’s the biggest myth of all, and in honor of President’s Day, I propose we smash that turd to pieces and Mike Rowe, Myth, Toiletflush it away with all due speed. In a few weeks, mikeroweWORKS will release another batch of Work Ethic Scholarships. This year, I put a call out to a few large companies that rely on skilled labor, and they’ve agreed to help me fund a new round. I’m grateful. Along with the help of many on this page, we’ve raised enough to make a sizable splash in mid March.

I’ll also provide a link to “Hot Under the Blue Collar,” which probably won’t win a Cleo, but just might keep the conversation lively.

Stay tuned…
Mike

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