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A National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Report expects that 3.4 million jobs will go unfilled by 2022.  According to the study, there will be a shortfall of technical workers, or workers who are post-high school in jobs that require science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) skills, but do not require a four-year degree.

With the changing landscape, and the changing needs of industry, what role do historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), minority-serving institutions, and community colleges play in their communities?

Over the past two years, the National Science Board Task Force on the Skilled Technical Workforce has identified opportunities and challenges facing students, workers, businesses, and educators. Here, we look at how HBCUs can improve opportunities for skilled technical workers, and how they can help build the future.

When we think of long-term national health, we usually think of things like mental, physical, and emotional health. But what about our economic health? Studies have shown that in terms of long-term health for the United States on a global scale, the nation is losing its leading spot in growth and development in areas of STEM. As our systems become smarter and more intricate, skilled technical workers increase in demand. Our nation now faces a different kind of health crisis—a shortage of skilled technical workers to maintain these intricate systems in the years to come.

For decades, the general societal messaging surrounding the education-to-workforce pipeline has been hyper-focused on getting students into college and pursuing four-year degrees and careers. This type of environment has led to lower success rates, especially for minority students.

These highly skilled job requirements lead to competitive salaries and little-to-no debt in the long-term future across several industries including construction, gas, and healthcare. Even with these perks, we are still seeing a disproportionately low number of women and minorities in these jobs compared to the overall workforce of our country.

Several factors have led to the decline of the skilled technical workforce.

Systemic Obstacles That Need to Change

1. The high school to college pipeline: High schools are typically funded by state boards of education. This funding is allocated based on the number of college-bound students. However, community colleges are not considered “colleges” by the current formula. This is discriminatory against two-year institutions. On a national scale, 30 percent of high school students who go to a four-year university drop out.
2. Student attention and access to resources: The typical ratio of students to counselors in public high schools is 400 to 1, leaving room for error.
3. Stigma: The conversation around two-year degrees and job certifications requires a shift. Students, especially African Americans and minorities, need to see successful technical workers thriving in their industry and understand the opportunities for job security and higher-paying salaries to mitigate the ongoing plague of “imposter syndrome” and income inequality.

The lack of data and information regarding the certifications needed for these jobs and the salaries that are available results in lower turnout.

“The career pipelines are the gateway for economic mobility for people of color,” said Leon Caldwell, Ph.D. “What is unfortunate is that there is no career theory specifically for the African-American experience in the workforce.”

How do we overcome this incredible shortfall as a society to sustain these smart systems over the course of the century and beyond? It starts with access to information and resources and economic mobility strategies. Today’s workforce development initiatives do not focus on the work skills that will fuel the next century of workers.

The traditional view of today’s electrician has expanded. Today, electricians require higher-level skills including the ability to code and create circuit designs. These skills are not just valuable to those looking to work with the major companies and organizations like Boeing or NASA, but to those who can carry these skills into the next generation of business owners and change makers.

Shifting the Perspective of the Skilled Technical Workforce

The National Science Board recommends the following shifts to help increase access to information and resources for students to pursue certifications and job opportunities in STEM, in addition to traditional four-year degrees.

Change the messaging: Even though vocational schools developed a false reputation as a “less suitable” form of education, many of today’s employers are looking for skills and certifications above degrees. Messaging should remove the stigma from technical work and highlight the high demand and higher wages available to skilled workers in the future.
Focus on the data: There is not enough information available to students and veterans on the opportunities through skilled work and even two-year degrees. While the demand for these workers increases, the ability to outline the specifications of what is required and what their salary trajectory could be with those skill sets needs to become readily available for the next generation of workers to make better-informed career decisions.
The innovation quotient and saving the “makers space”: As children, we innately become enamored with tinkering and making things from other things. It is in our nature to experiment and invent, and that has been the backbone of our evolution as a global society. The educational system today has placed less value on the creative work and skill sets that were once important to building our future. Creative spaces and “maker spaces” serve as an on-ramp to STEM careers and skill sets that will prove to be valuable in the future workforce.

The next generation of women and minorities will need to see these changes implemented to be able to access these underutilized career opportunities. HBCUs are the anchors of our communities and hold part of the responsibility to continue investing in this talent and opening doors to the future of the skilled technical workforce. Other major contributors include employers and companies that will be increasingly seeking this talent as technologies advance and opportunities grow. Through education, access to information, and clear messaging, we can support the future workforce in STEM.


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