Mike Rowe, former host of the popular show "Dirty Jobs," spoke before Congress earlier this year on the importance of closing the skills gap and expanding the workforce. In his testimony, he said:
"The skills gap will never close ... and the cost of college will never come down, if we keep telling people a four-year degree is their only hope of being successful. We need an educational system that re-embraces and reaffirms the importance of the vocational arts."
He's right. After all, what’s the point of an education if you don't obtain the knowledge and skills needed to get a job? An education system that is not addressing the critical shortage of skilled workers for both growing job markets and traditional industries is a system that is not working.
Industry leaders are adamant: "We have the jobs," they say, "but not enough qualified candidates."
The numbers are alarming. According to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, we face a potential shortage of 5 million workers in high-demand jobs by the year 2020.
In 2016, the Conference Board identified the risk of worker depletion in key occupations over the next several decades, including nurses, construction workers, machinists and mathematical scientists.
Historically, businesses and industries have relied primarily on two workforce development tracks. The most common is for students to graduate from high school, go to college to earn a degree and then seek employment in their chosen field. The challenge today is that only 60 percent of first-time, full-time college attendees graduate within six years. Too many come away with debt, but no degree or job.
In other cases, young people move directly into the workforce after leaving high school, learning their craft on the job or through formal apprenticeship programs. Yet these trade programs have declined 40 percent in the U.S. from 2003 to 2013.
Vocational technical programs — long ago a standard in high schools and community colleges — have largely been swept away in the "college readiness" tide.
The inadequacies of these models show why this is an urgent issue. There is no single solution. It's not a matter of promoting industry apprenticeships over formal education programs. Nor should career and technical training be viewed as the sole province of post-secondary schools.
Even in fields where post-secondary education is required, high schools can participate by offering introductory courses, pre-certification programs and partnerships with the private sector that give students a broader understanding of industries where jobs are in high demand. Such programs within K-12 education are essential, and state and federal policymakers should make them a priority.
We also need fresh, inspired and out-of-the-box thinking to ensure all have access to quality training programs relevant to today's economy. Some are doing so already.
The mikeroweWORKS Foundation, for example, is partnering with organizations such as SkillsUSA, Future Farmers of America and the Boy Scouts to provide scholarships for students pursuing training for skilled jobs that are in demand. By leveraging industry capital and tapping into youth organizations, they are giving young people exposure to dynamic training opportunities, and opportunities to pursue careers and obtain jobs.
We are an ambitious nation when it comes to economic leadership, but we need to walk the talk. Rare is it in today's political environment that consensus can be found on any big national issue. This is one.
Consider the current administration's plan for a $1 trillion infrastructure program, a massive undertaking that will, in many cases, require products and services from American workers. Congressional Democrats are also calling for equally massive infrastructure spending. Governors from both parties are urging the federal government to act, and pushing their own state leaders to do their part, so that much-needed projects in their states can get funded and green-lit.
However, the question remains: Who will make those products and do the work? And how can America reinvigorate its manufacturing economy if it's not educating and training a future generation of skilled workers?
The good news is we are seeing a renewed push to enhance existing CTE models and establish new ones, focused on both traditional vocations and new, emerging fields and technologies.
But more must be done, and this is not a time to be timid or insular. Walls between public and private enterprise must be broken down. Building a pipeline of highly skilled workers equipped to fill the millions of jobs available today, and the jobs of tomorrow, will require contributions from everyone — the creativity, investment, and initiative of education, industry, philanthropy, and government, all working together.
As Mike Rowe said, "If we want to make America great again, we have to make work cool again."
Nate Davis is executive chairman of K12 Inc., a technology-based education company and leading provider of online learning programs to schools across the United States. He is also a regular contributor in The Hill.
The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.