It’s amazing to me that in the U.S. we have companies desperate to find the “talent” they need to fill high-paying jobs that do not require four-year degrees, and, at the same time, we have millions of people out of work, under-employed, or working two, low-paying jobs to make ends meet. Why can’t we get these jobs and these people together?

This is a problem that is not going away. Community College Times reported that within skilled manual trades there are serious shortages, including carpenters, plumbers, stonemasons, electricians, cabinetmakers, and welders. The Independent Street blog reported the results of a survey of employers that identified their 10 hardest jobs to fill:

1. Engineers
2. Machinists/Machine Operators
3. Skilled Manual Trades
4. Technicians
5. Sales Representatives
6. Accounting & Finance Staff
7. Mechanics
8. Laborers
9. IT Staff
10. Production Operators

These jobs go unfilled even though many of them start at over $50,000 a year.

Part of the explanation for these jobs going unfilled is the demographics. “Boomers” are starting to retire and the working age cohorts that follow are smaller. At the same time, a large percentage of high school graduates, who could fill these jobs, are not prepared for college and work. High school graduation rates in the U.S. are low and getting lower. Looking at Detroit for example, the graduation rate has been estimated to be somewhere between 22% and 50% depending on how it is calculated. Detroit’s jobless rate, as reported by the Detroit News, was 14.6 percent in December 2007. I suspect it is much higher for young adults. A little less than a third of Detroiters have a high school diploma. Detroit might have one of the worst economies in the country at the moment but its graduation and employment problems are similar to those of many other large urban areas.

I think a major reason for the disconnect between people and jobs in skilled trades is that companies and union apprentice programs are not doing what needs to be done to encourage all people, including women and minorities, to go into the skilled trades. The total system needs change: recruitment; selection; retention; and ongoing professional development.

All union apprentice programs claim that they are equal opportunity employers but then do little to select and retain women and minority apprentices. In subtle and not so subtle ways, they discourage women and minorities from applying and then put up barriers (intentional and unintentional) to their success. The skilled trades were 2.5% female in 2005 which is about what they were in 1978. This is understandable given the typical experience of women in the trades. William F. Maloney, in his analysis of the sheet-metal industry, describes the situation for women in this way:

Upon entering a site, women may be subjected to taunts and requests for sexual favors, find crude sexual objects left in their tools, pornographic pictures posted around the job site, and physical assault including groping, unwanted touching, and assault. Harassment appears to be perceived as a means of driving women off the sites. A recent survey of female journey workers and apprentices in California determined that 57% of the women had been sexually harassed during the past year (California Apprentice Council, 2004). Is it any wonder why many women do not want to subject themselves to life on a construction site? Many female apprentices see leaving the industry as their only option if they are to retain their dignity.

Obviously, much work still needs to be done to make trade unions and work sites inviting and supportive of women. I suspect a similar situation exists for African-American and Latino workers. The skill and income gap in the U.S. can be closed but it will take a change in attitude and different ways of building the workforce.