How to Fix the High-Skill Labor Shortage

Think outside the box when it comes to career training.

The Associated Press

Apprentice programs could benefit the technology sector.

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for an increase in training programs and apprenticeships across U.S. industries. He’s absolutely right that we have to “train Americans with the skills employers need.” Too many recent college grads have no marketable skills, and face years of staggering loan payments for degrees they can’t effectively put to use. The solution is developing innovative programs that invest in training and educating young people for highly-skilled technical work in lucrative technology and manufacturing fields.

Since the Great Recession, the U.S. unemployment rate among recent college graduates has remained stubbornly high – around six percent in 2013. And almost half of recent grads – 44 percent – are underemployed, doing jobs that don’t require a college degree. This disparity is unfair to our rising generation of workers and damaging to our economy.

Even internships, which once served as stepping stones between school and full-time employment, are now harder to secure. Under the Obama administration’s Fair Labor Standards Act, it’s illegal to give unpaid interns any meaningful on-the-job training. Instead, these interns can receive only training similar to what they would receive in an educational environment, and they can’t provide any benefit to the companies where they work. In practice, this means many companies are opting not to bring on interns at all, potentially depriving countless college students of practical work experiences.

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To fix this problem, we have to think outside the box when it comes to career training. This means fighting cultural prejudice against technical training programs and vocational schools. The tech industry in particular should consider adopting apprenticeship models, like the training programs used in Germany. More than 65 percent of German teenagers start their careers after high school with vocational training. And the system works: Germany’s youth unemployment rate of 7.5 percent is the lowest by far of any other country in the European Union.

Already, some U.S. companies are embracing the apprenticeship model. Apprenticeship2000, based in Charlotte, N.C., offers four-year training programs for teenagers starting their junior or senior years of high school. Participants receive on-the-job training in high-skilled, technical labor, as well as benefits. Most importantly, they’re getting paid to go to school. And across the state line, Tognum America has adopted an apprenticeship program at its plant in Aiken County, S.C., training local high school juniors and seniors.

We need more programs like this in the U.S., especially in the technology sector. What if IT companies set up programs to train and educate promising young people in exchange for a commitment to work? Similar to the military’s recruiting model, this kind of program could provide a valuable education in exchange for a specific time commitment. After the time is up, these employees can stay put or apply their training and experience elsewhere. The result would be more jobs, more qualified candidates and a solution to our ongoing shortage of highly skilled labor.

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Our sons and daughters deserve a fair shot in life, which they won’t get if we don’t start coming up with innovative ways to prepare them for the 21st-century workforce. The tech industry in particular is beginning to see explosive growth, due to disruptive innovation that has changed the way all of us live. It’s time to use that same power of innovation to change the odds for young people just starting their careers.

As the president said in his address, “The nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow.” We have to stop telling our young people that a four-year degree is the only route to success. Let’s lose the college bias and offer broader opportunities for career training that will guarantee good, stable jobs and help fuel our innovation economy.