All skills gaps are local

This week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the unemployment rate is at an historic low of 3.7 percent. Still, U.S. job openings remain at an all-time high of 7 million.

While the headlines are dominated by the narrative that our nation’s skills gap is due to a lack of qualified workers for high-tech fields like web development and data science, this only tells a portion of the story.

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Some job vacancies are due to a scarcity of highly skilled workers, while other vacancies are due to a scarcity of middle-skilled or even low-skilled workers. When unemployment is low, it can be hard to fill any position, across any sector.

Recent data from LinkedIn, in fact, suggests that some of the nation’s most pernicious skills gaps are in fields and regions that have little to do with tech. While places like San Francisco actually have a surplus of workers who know how to code in Python and C++, they have a shortage of workers to fill jobs in fields like sales and education.

In Austin, employers are looking for workers with business management and leadership skills. In St. Louis and Minneapolis, there is a dearth of employees with public policy savvy. And as the labor market continues to tighten, the problem is only growing.

Against that backdrop, there is risk that a tech-obsessed national narrative may actually exacerbate skills gaps by steering too many people to fields that are held up as “hot,” even though local employer demands often differ from national headlines.

These nuances shouldn’t just require us to rethink career preparation opportunities for new high school graduates. The existing workforce — adults — are finding themselves in need of additional learning and training opportunities to keep up with local labor market needs.

In order to connect adults with prime economic opportunities, we have to start with a firm understanding of regional variations in economic need.

For instance, while workers in Detroit or Minneapolis-St. Paul may indeed be wise to pursue technical education in order to fill their cities’ needs for web developers, their peers in rural areas may see greater returns in filling their regions’ need for service-sector or manufacturing workers.

In the rural areas outside of Minnesota’s twin cities, for example, there is an inadequate supply of welders even though those jobs are well-paying and in high demand.

Oftentimes, structural factors exacerbate these skills gaps. Many unfilled openings require work experience or even a degree, without giving potentially qualified workers a chance to show their skills. Some workers, on the other hand, may mistakenly see their regions’ most available jobs as low-paying, boring or dangerous.

Closing these local skills gaps requires state and business leaders to invest in marketing initiatives that not only point workers to the necessary education or training, but also capture the attention of people who might have otherwise been diverted by our national tech-obsession.

The good news is that some state and local leaders are making localized education investments to address the actual realities of their labor markets.

A dozen community colleges and two universities in Minnesota recently formed a consortium called the Minnesota Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. Its goal is to help close skills gaps in the state’s manufacturing industries by offering educational programs and training to veterans, Trade Adjustment Assistance workers and other adult learners.

In New Mexico, the state’s chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts partnered with accelerated training programs that prepare workers for film industry jobs, in order to meet rapidly growing demand.

Earlier this year, Virginia and its community college system partnered with Google to pilot a search engine function that allows job seekers to more accurately pinpoint their communities’ labor market needs and see what training and educational opportunities may boost their odds of landing a job.

Just like politics, all skills gaps are local. The wise community will work across sectors to create flexible, accessible and relevant pathways for adult learners to get the training they need for the jobs most in demand in their communities.

Marie Cini is the president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a nonprofit working at all levels in higher education, government and business to make it easier for people to get the education and training they need.