How to Fix the American Job Skills Deficit

By Jeff Selingo

America has a skills deficit.

U.S. employers have been saying it for years, frustrated by job openings they can’t fill with qualified workers who even have basic skills. Now a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development proves it in pretty stark terms.

We’re far below the countries who performed at the top in the literacy test, average in problem-solving with computers, and only the Italians and Spaniards are worse in math skills. Most worrying from the results: young Americans did worse than their international counterparts on every measure.

The report is a wake-up call not only to fix our K-12 school system, but to expand our definition of what we mean by education after high school in the U.S.

Here’s the problem: the idea of graduating from a four-year college in the U.S. is so firmly ingrained in our culture that many of us have trouble envisioning anything else. It seems we send some kids off to college because there is nowhere else to put them. The campus is a convenient, albeit expensive, warehouse.

By clinging to the belief that education after high school can be found only at a four-year college campus, we exclude large portions of the American population from sharing in the nation’s economic successes. In 1970, seven in every ten workers with a high school diploma or less were in the middle class; today, fewer than four in ten remain there. More and more jobs demand training beyond high school. By 2020, two out of every three jobs will require some sort of higher education.

We need an expanded notion of what constitutes an education after high school to include more on-the-job training and apprenticeships in addition to classroom learning. In extending our definition of higher education, more attention needs to be given to “middle jobs.” These are positions that do not require a bachelor’s degree, but pay middle-class wages. Nearly half of the jobs in the United States today that put people in the middle class are these middle jobs.

Corporate executives worry more about filling these positions than they do about finding employees for high-end careers in engineering, design, and technology. “We can secure all the grads we need from elite schools,” Thomas Bowler, senior vice president at United Technologies, told me. “That’s not a challenge. It’s the other half of the workforce that I worry about.”

As a result, some companies are taking it upon themselves to educate their own workers, bypassing the higher education system completely.

In rural Macon, Missouri, a company called Onshore Outsourcing trains employees to provide technology services — ranging from software development to application support — to Fortune 500 companies that normally would send the jobs offshore to India or China. About 80 percent of the company’s 150 employees are people who didn’t go to college because they weren’t encouraged to or couldn’t afford it.

Chuck Ruggiero, Onshore’s president, says, “we’re looking for that underemployed worker.” The average salary at Onshore is $30,000, a solid wage in a part of Missouri where good jobs are few and far between.

The process to get hired, however, is demanding. From an initial applicant pool that could number upward of two hundred, the group is narrowed to about thirty through a series of interviews and a test. About fifteen people get into an eight- to twelve-week boot camp of classes designed around problem-solving activities, not lectures. “The idea is to put them on an island and throw them a problem to solve,” Ruggiero says. “After all, that’s the way the real world works.”

A world in which the skill-set of U.S. works is quickly falling behind.