Post-secondary enrollment rates are on the rise, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.1 In fall 2012, 17.7. million undergraduate students were enrolled in a degree-granting postsecondary institution, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Undergraduate enrollment is on the rise, and expected to increase to 20.2 million students by 2023.

Yet, despite millions of students receiving occupational skills training and education, key industries still struggle to fill middle-skill jobs with adequately trained workers.

"75% of manufacturers are experiencing a moderate to severe shortage of talent, even as approximately 600,000 manufacturing sector jobs consistently remain open," reports a Harvard Business School study. In Pennsylvania alone, 41% of companies surveyed by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry in 2012 reported a significant lack of workers with the required technical training.2

The U.S. economy is caught in a widening skills gap - employers need to fill middle-skill jobs, but face a lack of job seekers who have the necessary advanced training and skill set, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Equipping our students with middle-skills training can help tighten the skills gap and also create bright career paths in STEM fields.

Why Middle-Skills Jobs & STEM Fields

Middle-skills jobs require education and training beyond high school, but less than a four-year degree. These jobs (e.g. plumbers, electricians, healthcare workers, legal assistants, machinists, police officers) make up the largest sector of the U.S. labor market.2

STEM industries include health care, information technology, engineering and advanced manufacturing, analysts (math) and sciences.3 Medical assistants and computer support techs in particular are rising occupations in STEM fields. Medical assistants are responsible for administrative and clinical tasks in physician and health practitioner offices. In 2012, there were 560,800 jobs in medical assistance with a job growth outlook of 29% between 2012 and 2022, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies as much faster than average.4

Computer support specialists help organizations and people with computer software and equipment support. More specifically, computer network support specialists provide support for an organization's informational technology (IT) employees, and computer user support specialists help users with computer problems and no IT experience. Computer support specialists earned on average $48,900 annually, according to the BLS, and job opportunities are expected to grow 17% from 2012 to 2022.5

STEM fields are not only in demand and growing, but they're driving innovation and economic competitiveness, according to Achieve's paper, "The Future of the U.S. Workforce: Middle Skills Jobs and the Growing Importance of Postsecondary Education." By 2018, STEM jobs are projected to grow 17%, whereas non-STEM jobs will grow 10 %.6 Unless educational institutions, employers, and community organizations team up to build a strong and qualified workforce, 1.2 million STEM jobs will go unfulfilled in 2018.7

Future workers with STEM training have the opportunity to easily transition into the job market and earn higher entry level wages than those with non-STEM training. Opportunity exists, but a disconnect continues to prevent job seekers from going after these occupations.

Addressing Workforce Shortfalls

Employers want to hire workers who are highly skilled with on-the-job experience, but they don't necessarily provide opportunities for hands-on, skilled training. The responsibility to develop the skills falls on the job seekers, students, and leaders in education. The demand for better worker skills and experiences begs for an education system and training programs designed to identify what employers need and look for in workers, specifically at the community college and post-high school level, reports

Here's how career colleges and educators can help minimize the skills gap and prepare students for growing middle-skills jobs in high-paying STEM fields:

  1. Collaboration with Employers & High Schools: Through collaboration, employers and educators can identify the skills students need to learn and develop a step-by-step career path. For example, connect with health care facilities and IT organizations to create work-based training, such as apprenticeships or internships, to prepare students with career readiness. Companies like the Manufacturing Institute, Oracle, Microsoft, and Cisco work with colleges to offer certification programs with the goal to educate and train workers.

    Career colleges can also collaborate with local high schools to educate high school juniors, seniors, and parents on STEM careers. School reps should share data on risks of unemployment, high-growth regional industries, occupations in demand, wage expectations, and how students can embark on a successful pathway toward a STEM career. Also, share college program requirements and incentivize students by highlighting success rates at local postsecondary institutions.6

  2. Community Investment & Awareness: Policy organizations and private/public sectors can invest in improving access to educational training to bolster the workforce and support awareness about the skills gap. Build relationships with local initiatives and programs to help achieve a more qualified workforce, even starting at the elementary level.

Last October, Chevron Corporation launched the Appalachia Partnership Initiative, a $20 million venture, aimed to address the skills gap in STEM-related careers. The mission is to build a well-trained labor force for energy and manufacturing industries throughout the region, which has 1,000 companies and 41,000 jobs available. A partnership with ShaleNet will also provide community college scholarships and help guide students into post-secondary education and skilled trade certification opportunities.2

The initiative envisions targeting students as early as junior high school. Chevron even wants to expand its partnership with Project Lead the Way, a leading provider of STEM programs for K-12 schools. A strong K-12 foundation in education systems can help improve a student's successful entry into post-secondary education and a future career.

Reach out to your community's employers, school systems and organizations to help increase awareness about high-wage STEM career pathways. Ensure students (from elementary to high school) have the knowledge to pursue post-secondary training that sets them up for high-return employment. The role of career colleges can prepare young people for a successful career, help STEM industries fill in-demand vacant positions with trained workers and ultimately, close the skills gap threatening our economy.

Resources: photo(1) Undergraduate Enrollment (2) Mind the gap: Finding ways to boost Pittsburgh's middle-skills workforce (3) Engaging Industry and Students in STEM Middle Skill Jobs (4) OOH Medical Assistants (5) OOH Computer Support Specialists (6) The Future of the U.S. Workforce (7) Today's STEM Realities (8) Lack of Skilled Workers Threatens Economic Growth

Check out related blog posts: 

The Case for Skills Training in the High School Classroom 

Why Addressing the Middle Skills Talent Gap Starts with Helping At-Risk Youth