This month we want to discuss one aspect of economic development strategy that has become increasingly relevant in recent years – finding enough qualified workers to fill the jobs that are available in today’s economy. Specifically, we want to discuss the skills gap. You might have heard this phrase, “the skills gap”, but what does it mean and why are so many people talking about it?

When speaking with some of Burke County’s largest employers you will hear them say, “We can’t find the right employees,” although we all know someone who is out of work and searching for a job. We are not alone. Communities and employers all across the country are experiencing this problem.

A 2014 CareerBuilder report found that, “more than half of employers nationwide have an open job for which they cannot find qualified candidates, and 8 in 10 have difficulty filling positions altogether.”

Generally, the skills gap refers to a complex issue that is defined by employers having difficulty hiring skilled workers – specifically, workers with the right skills to deal with new technologies.

The problem is complex and can’t simply be blamed only on the belief that jobseekers aren’t “educated” in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, forty-four percent of college-educated workers under 25 have jobs that do not require a college degree.

There are varying opinions on what has caused and continues to contribute to the skills gap. Experts attribute the issue to various factors including:

  • Education gaps in particular areas
  • Gaps in on-the-job training
  • New/shifting technologies
  • Gaps in expectations about wages
  • Lack of knowledge about potential career opportunities
  • Access to education
  • Job requirements that are too specific

While this is a national problem it is widely recognized that solutions must come from the ground up and be created locally. In our December editorial we described BDI’s formation of a Workforce Task Force to delve into this issue and determine the best locally crafted response.

The Task Force includes key partners like Western Piedmont Community College, Burke County Public Schools, the Burke County Chamber of Commerce and our existing employers. These groups are in agreement that what is needed is an internal marketing campaign that targets students, young adults and their parents.

The campaign will utilize various channels to:

  • Describe the existing and future careers available in Burke County
  • Detail the career pathways someone should take to obtain a job in these fields
  • Encourage participation in the existing training programs that are already available
  • Promote opportunities within local companies – such as internships, apprenticeships, on-the-job training and tuition reimbursement – that provide hands-on experience

The campaign will focus on several emerging trends. It is vital that young people become lifelong learners. By 2018 nearly two-thirds of the nation’s jobs will require some postsecondary education or training. The average millennial stays in a job for only 4.4 years so it is critical that they are continuously obtaining new skills and adding to their resume to make themselves more marketable.

Employers must invest in training and providing skills to both new and existing employees. According to the CareerBuilder survey, seventy-two percent of job seekers are willing to take jobs in a different field from the one in which they are currently looking. If they are willing to provide training, then employers can cast a wider net when searching for the best talent.

Schools, colleges and community partners working on this issue must do a better job of understanding the jobs available five or ten years from now and communicating those opportunities to our young people and their parents.

BDI has set aside funds from our 2016-2017 budget to launch this campaign and will be selecting a marketing firm in June to carry out the first phase of the work. While this will not immediately solve the larger issue of the skills gap it is a step in the right direction.

For numerous reasons – including many that are outside our control – rural communities like ours continue to see declining population numbers, especially amongst the 18- to 25-year-old demographic. For many years we have focused on sending our young people away rather than preparing them for the jobs that will be available to them in their own towns.

The issue of the skills gap is not something that will be solved overnight, or even in a year’s time. At the local level we must continue to work together to develop long term solutions that fill the jobs of today – and more importantly, the jobs of tomorrow.

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