Reconsidering Career Planning

August 19, 2015

Too many of today’s students—in high school and in college—suffer from low literacy rates, says William Symonds.

He’s not talking about the ability to read and write, however. Instead, this illiteracy takes the form of vague, fuzzy or even nonexistent plans for how the students intend to use what they’re learning once they graduate. These low “career literacy” rates end up holding many students back once they enter the world of work, says Symonds, CEO of the Global Pathways Institute at Arizona State University.

“Career literacy means being equipped with the tools and knowledge necessary to make good career decisions,” he says.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates that 45 percent of college graduates are under-employed, he notes. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 41 percent of students who enter a four-year college will leave before obtaining their degrees.

At the same time, however, scores of skilled-manufacturing and skilled-trades jobs go unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants, says Symonds.

The Washington-based Manufacturing Institute estimates that U.S. manufacturers will be unable to fill up to 2 million of the estimated 3.5 million jobs expected to open up within the next decade (due to economic growth and baby boomer retirements) because of skills shortages. 

Symonds and other workforce-development experts say HR leaders at manufacturing companies (as well as those in other industries, including healthcare) need to do a better job of addressing a misconception that many—if not most—parents and their children have: If you want a decent future, you need a bachelor’s degree.

“Most jobs don’t require a four-year degree, yet we tell students they need it in order to succeed,” says Symonds.

There also needs to be much more collaboration between HR and educators, he says. The root of the skills shortage lies in “a failure of communication—companies aren’t doing a good enough job explaining what they need so educators can help build programs to equip students with the necessary skills,” says Symonds.

The Houston area offers a potentially useful example for other regions. The rise of shale drilling has led to thousands of well-paying new jobs in Houston’s petrochemicals industry, many requiring an associate’s degree at most. One project alone—a huge expansion of The Woodlands, Texas.-based Chevron-Phillips Chemical Co.’s massive Cedar Bayou plant near Houston—will create thousands of new jobs, says Roy Watson, the company’s workforce development superintendent.

“We’re really concerned about finding enough people,” he says.

Looming retirements are yet another concern, says Watson: Approximately 50 percent of the Houston area’s petrochemical industry workforce is expected to retire within the next five years. 

CP Chem and other large petrochemical companies are partnering closely with area schools and community colleges and organizations such as the East Harris County Manufacturers Association (Houston lies within Harris County) to get the word out about job opportunities and help the schools create courses for students interested in pursuing those opportunities. The goal is to ensure a reliable supply of skilled workers.

“We’ve been to schools where only 15 percent of the students go on to a four-year college—we want the other 85 percent to have an idea of what they want to do in the future and give them some options,” says Watson.

EHCMA is also working with local chapters of Junior Achievement on a program called “JA Inspire,” designed to get 8th graders to think about their future careers. Local employers conduct presentations on their available careers and explain what students will need to study in order to be successful in those careers, he says. School reforms in Texas have helped, says Watson, who points to House Bill 5, a 2013 state law designed to make it easier for high-school students to take more vocationally-oriented classes besides those designed for the college track.

“The people we hire need to have a certain skill set, and if we’re not working with the schools, then we’re just not going to get that,” says Watson.

EHCMA’s work is part of a local initiative that was recently recognized, along with six similar programs elsewhere in the country, by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce and the Aspen Institute’s Workforce Strategies Institute for inclusion in the “Communities that Work Partnership.” The CTWP is an effort to strengthen regional economies by helping American workers “obtain the skills needed for 21st century jobs,” according to the Commerce Dept.

Scott Ellsworth says he understands the difficulty many employers face in encouraging young people to seek out careers that don’t require a four-year degree. As the vice president in charge of operations for the U.S. division of a Canadian manufacturer, he would conduct presentations at local schools about well-paying industrial jobs, yet at home he would encourage his own children to pursue four-year college degrees.

Ironically enough, Ellsworth’s own son ended up leaving his four-year degree program and went on to a successful career as a project manager, he says.

Today, Ellsworth is director of the Business Leaders United for Workforce Partnership, a Cincinnati-based initiative of the National Skills Coalition that’s working with local companies and agencies to train and hire community residents for skilled jobs. He says it’s important to emphasize to parents that a career in manufacturing or the skilled trades can lead to the same—or greater—financial rewards as a white-collar career. 

“One of the things I frequently say to parents is, if you’ve hired an electrician lately, you’ll notice he’s gray-haired like I am, he’s very busy and you paid him a lot of money—so ask yourselves, who’s backfilling for him when he retires?”

Being an electrician or a plumber doesn’t just mean the opportunity to get a steady job with middle-class wages, he says—it’s also a potential path to owning your own company. Yet many parents don’t think of it that way.

“The piece we don’t think about as parents is that there’s more than one way to end up in that corner office, or wherever it is that we want our kids to end up,” says Ellsworth.

The National Skills Coalition plans to release a “sector scan” of all 50 states to highlight which ones have legislation set up to support partnerships between schools and local employers, “and that’s a great tool, because the states can learn from each other,” says Ellsworth.

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Standards and Technology will sponsor its annual “Manufacturing Day” on Oct. 2 to “get the word out about careers in manufacturing,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Huergo. During the event, manufacturers across the nation open their doors to host students, teachers and job-seekers interested in learning about their operations. It’s an opportunity for companies to get people interested in careers in manufacturing, she says.

HR leaders need to get closely involved in such efforts, says Symonds. “HR is critical to solving this problem—they know what skills are in demand, and their full involvement can help create a much better system,” he says.