Senate Commerce Committee debates skill gap in bluecollar jobs

By: Evangeline Lacroix


Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in the Dirksen Senate Building

WASHINGTON — Advocates and industry experts in the manufacturing sector testified to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the lack of qualified applicants for technical jobs for U.S manufacturing jobs, and their solutions to lessen this gap.

In his opening remarks, Chairman John Thune (R-SD) cited four key reasons for the decline in manufacturing jobs: a decline of technical education programs in public high-schools, an increase in the number of Baby /boomers approaching retirement, a negative perception of the manufacturing sector among some potential employees and an increased emphasis on four-year college enrollment.

One way people are trying to close this gap is by installing apprentice structures into their workforce by partnering with local community colleges and high-schools to get more kids into the door.

“Companies today are having a hard time finding qualified job applicants for technical positions. As many as 13 million U.S. jobs require technical or STEM skills, but not a 4-year college degree,” said ranking member Bill Nelson (D-FL). “On one hand, more Americans than ever are attending college – many graduating with crippling student loans. On the other, companies are desperate to fill well-paying technical jobs that require some training, but less than a bachelor’s degree. It is clear there is a mismatch between our education system and industry’s workforce needs.”

In the hearing, the Senators, advocates and industry leaders debated the best ways to close this skills gap — the gap between how many available jobs there are and the number of qualified applicants.

“Getting young people interested in working with their hands, and familiar with tools from a young age, is an important first step. A focus on technical education is part of the solution,” Thune said.

Longtime actor John Ratzenberger, an advocate for manufacturing jobs most famous for his role as Cliff Clavin on the CBS comedy “Cheers” and his Travel Chanel show “Made In America”, a show that spotlights manufacturing in the U.S, talked to committee members about the importance of skilled labor in the American workforce.

“Make no mistake — we are the peacekeepers of the world because of our manufacturing might,” Ratzenberger said. “Manufacturing is to America what spinach is to Popeye.”

Ratzenberger, who grew up in Connecticut in a community that he says prioritized unskilled labor — jobs that do not require college degrees, says manufacturing isn’t just important to him, it is a cornerstone of American Life that is dying.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.3 million Americans held manufacturing jobs in 2016, down from over 17 million in 2000.

“The fate of Western civilization rests entirely on our ability to make things,” Ratzenberger said. “The world would get along just fine without actors, reality stars, musicians and sports celebrities. Our loved ones would be sad but the world would continue to hum along seamlessly. Think, however, what would happen if all the skilled tradespeople from carpenters and plumbers to farmers and truck drivers decided not to show up for work tomorrow. We, the entire nation, would instantly grind to a halt causing problems that would take generations to overcome.”


One company that is trying to close the skills gap is Siemens, a large manufacturing, and electronics company. According to their CEO, Judy Marks , they spend $50 million annually on training employees.

A large portion of Siemens’ training is through their four-year apprenticeships located in Alabama, Georgia and California. Students at local community colleges get an international-industry certification, a degree and an apprenticeship completion certificate. Once they complete the apprenticeship, they are guaranteed a job at Siemens with a starting salary of around $55,000 a year.

“In the 21 st century, strong work ethic is only part of what is required,” Marks said. “Today workers need to have technical skills earned through training and knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – or STEM – earned through education beyond high-school. A high-school diploma alone is no longer a viable ticket to a manufacturing career, reflecting larger changes throughout our new, digital economy.”

This is evident in the 2008 recession. During this time, Siemens found that 80 percent of workers who lost their jobs had only a high-school diploma. Once more jobs were able to be created, workers with at least some college education filled more than 95 percent of new positions created. According to Marks, by 2020, two out of three jobs will require some postsecondary education, compared to the 1970s when three out of four jobs required a high-school education or less.

Nelson and other members of the committee cited poor marketing of the manufacturing sector to Millennials as a key reason for the decline in jobs.

“Aggravating this problem is a stigma about blue-collar jobs,” Nelson said. “High-school students choosing between university or technical training need to know that many manufacturing workers are well paid and highly sought after. We have to do a better job of changing attitudes when it comes to the perception of technical education and manufacturing jobs.”

While no formal action was taken at the hearing, the Senators agreed that more research has to be done on how to lessen the education gap of manufacturing jobs.

“The bottom line here is that we – educators, industry and all levels of government – must do everything we can to better prepare workers for the job market of today and tomorrow,” Nelson said. “Failure is not an option. We have to expand job opportunities for American workers and make sure our nation has the skilled labor it needs to remain competitive in the global economy.”


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