Rubio and Obama Find Common Ground on the Skills Gap

A statement made by Florida Senator Marco Rubio has received a lot of attention in the days following this week’s GOP primary debate. He said, “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” As multiple fact-checkers have pointed out, the statement on relative income is not true, as both philosophy majors and professors make significantly more than welders. Despite the flawed example, Rubio’s larger point highlights a critical and very real issue for America’s economy – a significant gap between the supply and demand of skilled workers.

For example, a report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute released earlier this year predicts that America’s manufacturing industry will need 3.4 million workers over the next decade. But there is an expected shortage of 2 million workers. Why? The demand created by an “impending onslaught” of baby boomer retirements will greatly outpace the supply of skilled STEM workers.

An overwhelming number of employers also have challenges filling open positions due to a lack of qualified candidates – more than half report having open positions that they cannot fill. And they cite gaps in education related to specific skills and new and shifting technologies as two of the primary drivers of the problem.

There has been some recent action at the federal level to address this issue. For example, the Deloitte report notes that the Obama Administration has awarded nearly $1 billion in grants to community colleges that support creation and expansion of manufacturing education programs, and another $100 million is now available to establish apprenticeship programs.

Additionally, the Administration continues to implement its Experimental Sites Initiative, authorized under the Higher Education Act. It allows the Department of Education to waive certain statutory and regulatory requirements for Title IV federal aid, allowing for experimental federal aid eligibility to partnerships between colleges and alternative education providers, such as job skills boot camps, coding academies, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Congress is also turning an eye towards the skills gap issue, as both chambers’ education committees have indicated in recent weeks that they will work on reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. The law, which supports secondary and postsecondary programs that train students for specific careers, has not been revamped since 2006. It’s still too early to tell where these efforts will lead, but maximizing the alignment of career training programs with the needs of employers will be critical.

Post-debate poll results from the Wall Street Journal (one of the debate’s sponsors) indicate a strong showing from Rubio, and he is on a good trajectory to compete for the nomination. He is also the only candidate that has made career and technical education a large part of his platform. But regardless of what happens in the 2016 election, it’s imperative that we continuing building momentum to address our growing skills gap. Otherwise, we’ll have unfilled jobs and unemployed workers that aren’t qualified to fill them.