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Friday, September 13, 2013

The Vocational Revolution: How the Best Jobs of the Next Decade Won't Require College

One way to look at the Great Recession of 2007 - 2012 is that it was one giant comeuppance for about three generations of Americans, mine included.  We have been "too good" to do blue collar work and have sent that message to our kids.  Now the Starbucks generations are facing a conundrum: long-term unemployment, long-term and low-wage under employment in fast food and retail, or a return to skilled trades.

Starting in the 1980's college became the only acceptable route to success, and the skilled trades fell out of favor.  Working in manufacturing HR during the 1990s I recall the first signs of a critical shortage in tool and die makers and machinists, as more and more people flocked to college rather than vocational schools.  We have not turned out enough skilled trades graduates to feed the demand since the 1970's, but off-shoring of manufacturing and delayed retirements reduced demand and lessened or masked the problem.  No more.

In trades all across the country retirements are quickly shrinking the ranks of electricians, plumbers, nurses, tool and die makers, auto technicians and nurses' aids.  Increased automation is causing a subsequent increase in the need for computer programmers and systems analysts.  At a time when the economy is picking up we are awash in lawyers, marketers and middle managers while factories and construction contractors can't find skilled people unless they train them post-hire.  Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. This has more recently been referred to as our national "skills gap".

There are some true victims in this transition:

  • Greying unskilled assembly workers whose factories have moved on and who lack the technical knowledge to get hired in today's higher-tech trades.  
  • Similarly greying middle managers whose income levels make it difficult to re-tool
  • "College" graduates from on-line programs who have run up as much as $200,000 in student loans for jobs paying in the 30's and 40's.  
  • New college graduates with white collar degrees that don't qualify them to do anything but be trained post-hire and for whom management track jobs (see middle managers above) no longer exist.
Two venerable business and finance organizations have recently noted this need for more skilled trades. Kiplinger's list of the best jobs includes almost completely hands-on, value added positions; many of which may or may not require a college degree.  Forbes went one step further, listing the fastest growing jobs from the bureau of labor statistics and noting, "These are only unskilled jobs if by unskilled you mean they don't require a college degree."  

So mamas, its okay to let your babies grow up to be cowboys...and electricians...and sonogram operators...and physical therapists...and elementary school teachers.  We've spent the last years trying to raise little Alex P. Keaton's and for our trouble we got high unemployment and two and half generations of people who can't change their own oil.  That sound you hear off in the distance is the pendulum swinging back this way.

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