Op-Ed: Innovation is the solution for our skilled labor crisis in Texas

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Op-Ed: Innovation is the solution for our skilled labor crisis in Texas

Op-Ed originally published in the Dallas Morning News, September 13, 2022

Today, employers statewide struggle to find qualified skilled workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas reported over 988,000 job openings in June 2022. These gaps are particularly acute among middle-skill jobs in construction and manufacturing, in roles as diverse as electricians to aircraft production technicians. This challenge worsens as our workforce ages, with up to five skilled workers exiting for each new person entering via traditional channels.

Student debt forgiveness may temporarily relieve borrowers, but as a policy solution it fails to address an underlying problem: Higher education is not sufficiently training students for valuable careers despite its rising costs. According to a 2021 College Board study, public four year colleges have increased prices by more than 2.5 times since 1991, even after accounting for inflation. Colleges operating under Title IV regulations rely heavily on federal aid to offset mounting expenses, limiting their flexibility to innovate with shorter, non-degree programs and workforce development accelerators falling outside of the scope of traditional accreditation. 

So despite continuous growth in spending, higher education institutions fail to provide fast, employer-centered solutions to ready our workforce. Who can blame them? Employers are not their core customer.

With major investments in the U.S. supply chain underway across critical industries like advanced manufacturing, semiconductors, biotechnology, and electric vehicles, the scale of this challenge mounts higher each day. To address this shortage of nearly one million workers in Texas and ten million more across America, we must rapidly expand the supply of skilled talent. 

We need to attack the shortage of skilled workers on several fronts.

First, technology makes it possible to source from previously untapped candidate pools. These groups include underemployed immigrants, veterans, and recent graduates referred to by Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work Project as “hidden workers”. More than 27 million of these people exist, united by a common desire to “unstick” their lives by moving from warehouse, retail, or gig jobs into more stable careers unlocking upward mobility. 

Second, software products can screen new candidates on the basis of their mindsets, dispositions, and behavior markers, assessing talent on its potential rather than existing degrees. By measuring aptitude and reliability, employers can narrow in on candidates who demonstrate a high propensity for success, once they are equipped with necessary credentials. 

Third, virtual training combined with in-person mentorship offers low-cost, user centered ways to upskill talent. These types of interventions ramp the quality and speed of apprenticeship programs, enabling employers to differentiate across cohorts of individual adult learners and make targeted investments to accelerate credentialing efforts.

This isn’t just good for individuals, it makes good business sense for employers, too. With staffing agencies charging 40-50% premiums for temporary labor in an inflationary environment, a $10,000 investment to upskill a high potential entry-level skilled worker for a full-time, $25/hr opportunity can break even in as little as 3-6 months. Productive talent pays for itself in no time.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – we must celebrate those who enter skilled professions. These builders are at the heart of American dynamism, as they are responsible for advancing next generation economic capabilities for our nation. We should revere their examples.

Darren Green, a former U.S. Marine Corps Scout Sniper and special operator, is one such candidate to cheer. After an honorable discharge, Darren wrestled with a lost sense of mission in his transition to civilian life. Desiring a career working with his hands, he enrolled in a rapid upskilling bootcamp to become a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) technician, earning his entry-level credential and federal safety certification in 8 weeks of intense training.

Today, Darren is employed by a fast-growing commercial HVAC operator in North Texas, finding a broader sense of meaning for the first time since returning from deployment. When someone’s air conditioning system fails, he sees an opportunity to diagnose and solve real problems in the service of his customer. Great dignity exists in his work and its impact on society.

We are in a critical moment across Texas and around the United States, and new approaches are needed to reskill our workforce to meet employers’ needs.

Jobs of the future offer high purpose and high pay. It’s time for us to go build those opportunities for our fellow Americans. 

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