From Scranton to Silicon Valley: Preparing for jobs of the future

From Scranton to Silicon Valley: Preparing for jobs of the future
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For several years during my childhood in the 70s and early 80s, my home was Middletown, Ohio – the setting of J.D. Vance’s searing memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” My father was a financial executive at the very same company, AK Steel Holding, where Vance’s grandfather worked in the steel mill. Like Vance, I too witnessed this small, thriving mid-western town, once recognized with an All-American City Award in 1957, take a dramatic downward turn in the 1980s.

I saw for myself how the downsizing and departure of a company’s headquarters can dramatically change a community. It reduces tax revenue, leading to less effective schools, less law enforcement and fewer public services. It also damages community morale, as thousands of gainfully employed factory workers find themselves unable to provide for themselves and their families. And it leads to unemployment for their children, who often plan to work at the same company as their parents. Unfortunately in this case, it also led to opioid addictions and deaths among citizens who had few employment opportunities.

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In my job at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), I see a completely different world with a wealth of employment opportunities for Americans in every state. Nearly every day, I hear from and work with tech companies that are desperately seeking talented employees with tech backgrounds, degrees, credentials and certifications, but can’t find enough workers with the right skills. This is a growing trend: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, our country will need nine million STEM workers by 2022.   

The U.S. labor force is experiencing a period of radical disruption. Demand for labor is shifting from low-skilled to high-skilled talent. Today, the country’s unemployment rate is at a record-low 4.1 percent, despite 6.5 million Americans still looking for work and six million unfilled jobs. Many of these open positions require tech-related skills in the areas of cybersecurity, software development, data analytics, robotics and artificial intelligence. According to CTA research, senior leaders in the tech industry expect significant hiring challenges: 86 percent say they’ll need many more employees with technical skills in the next five years.

Helping to bridge this gap between the realities I saw in Ohio and what I see in Washington is deeply important to me. And one key step in bridging this gap is evolving our education system while also encouraging, preparing and exciting our youth to seek employment in the thriving technology sector.

Code.org, a nonprofit that works on representation and diversity in computer science, says there are more than 486,000 computer science jobs available across the country, but only about 43,000 computer science students graduated in 2016. By investing in K-12 education, we can introduce our students — our future workers — at a very young age to science, technology, engineering, math and computer programming. We also need to educate them about the jobs in high demand as well as engage their imaginations about the potential for entrepreneurship.

At CTA, we support these kinds of forward-thinking initiatives including helping implement a digital hands-on course called CES Future Innovators together with the education technology company EVERFI. Based in Las Vegas-area public schools, the curriculum helps students brainstorm and design their own individual business plans. We need more initiatives like this for students across the country to successfully prepare them for our evolving workforce.

We also need to encourage greater adoption of non-traditional educational pathways in the U.S. — such as apprenticeships, train-to-hire programs and internships — to introduce Americans to careers in high demand and help our country create a competitive and fully-equipped 21st century workforce. It is difficult for many to admit this, but a four-year college degree is not always the best educational pathway for every student. The rising costs of college, coupled with low-demand degrees, is leaving many young people with crippling debt and no job.

Many tech companies are taking proactive steps to invest in workforce development programs and attract non-traditional talent. For example, Amazon is working directly with schools to create curriculums enabling students to learn relevant subjects and skills such as cloud computing, leading to portable certification and employment. Amazon is also offering hourly workers paid tuition for up to four years through their “Career Choice” program, which allows them to learn the highly-demanded skills they need to advance their own careers.

Another strategic way companies can help close their skills gap is by recruiting, hiring and training veterans and active duty military spouses. Veterans have strong leadership skills, can-do-attitudes and technical skills that are sought after by many companies.

Over 250,000 service members transition out of the military each year and represent a valuable pool of candidates. The U.S. Tech Vets program, funded by CTA, helps veterans translate their service role and skills they learned in the military and places them in jobs with tech companies. CTA also hosted a Roundtable with Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineKey House and Senate health leaders reach deal to stop surprise medical bills 'Granite Express' flight to take staffers, journalists to NH after Iowa caucuses Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Senate panel approves Trump FDA pick | Biden downplays Dem enthusiasm around 'Medicare for All' | Trump officials unveil program for free HIV prevention drugs for uninsured MORE (D-VA) and Blue Star Families in 2017 to address the 28 percent unemployment among military spouses and brainstorm ways to help them secure flexible work options and job portability in the tech industry.

We also need to start thinking creatively about how to support talent nationwide. An abundance of inquisitive, innovative people live in America’s rural heartland, but some of them don’t have the same opportunities that those who live in urban or coastal cities do. By expanding broadband infrastructure and encouraging teleworking, we can tap into the nation’s talent from coast to coast.

I recently returned from CES® 2018 in Las Vegas, Nev. While I was certainly excited to see all the amazing new technologies and meet all different kinds of innovators, I was especially proud that CES represents precisely the kind of approach we need to solve the skills gap. The show gives innovators, industry leaders and government officials an opportunity to put their heads together and discuss how we can strengthen our economy and our workforce.

A country where workers from Middletown to Manhattan, Silicon Valley to Scranton have the same opportunities and training might seem impossible, but that’s the beauty of CES. When you see impossibilities become realities right before your eyes, it’s easier to envision a promising future — a country where U.S.-based employers can cultivate, hire and retain qualified workers of all ages and backgrounds, allowing them to innovate, compete and thrive in a global economy.

Jennifer Taylor is vice president of U.S. jobs at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).