In this age of information and data, many policymakers now push for a greater emphasis on STEM education in the nation’s schools — STEM being an acronym for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” And who could deny that developing talent in these disciplines is imperative to the country’s health?
But in stressing the need for literacy in math and science as a prerequisite for America’s long-term economic prosperity, it’s also vital to recognize the opportunities available for students who may not have the desire or aptitude to become coders or mechanical engineers.
In fact, the nation now faces a serious labor shortage in many of the skilled trades. “Contractors throughout the country said that as the workload grows, they are beginning to see shortages of electricians, carpenters and other subcontractor laborers,” the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
A Journal editorial on the same topic noted that United Technology and Dow Chemical “have or will have thousands of job openings for skilled technicians that pay a healthy middle-class wage with benefits” but often have trouble finding qualified applicants.
None of this will be of any surprise to Mike Rowe, the affable host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” and CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do it.” For years, Mr. Rowe has been preaching about the nation’s skills gap, pointing out that there are many, many good-paying jobs available that don’t require college diplomas. For those worried about the shrinking middle class, this might be a revelation.
“In a society that’s convinced a four-year degree is the best path for most people,” Mr. Rowe wrote last year, “a whole category of good jobs have been relegated to some sort of a ‘vocational consolation prize.’ Is it any wonder that we have $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loans? … As long as Americans remain addicted to affordable electricity, smooth roads, indoor plumbing and climate control, the opportunities in the skilled trades will never go away.”
Mr. Rowe points out that as workforce participation drops, the Labor Department in 2016 estimated that the country had 5.6 million job openings, many of which pay a solid, middle-class hourly wage. A year later, not much has changed. The Journal reports that Associated Builders and Contractors believes the nation’s construction trades need more than 1 million more workers to meet demand.
Yes, the country must cultivate engineers, scientists, IT pros and mathematicians to compete in the global economy. But contrary to conventional wisdom, there are hundreds of thousands of middle-class jobs available in more traditional vocations. That offers an incredible opportunity for motivated students who may prefer a different path.