Skills Gap Hinders Access to Promising Jobs, EEOC Told

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By Kevin McGowan

Workers need to be better prepared to fill the manufacturing, technology and skilled trade jobs that are growth areas in the U.S. economy, witnesses representing unions, employers, think tanks and academia told the EEOC.

A mismatch between individuals’ skills and available jobs is exacerbated by educational shortfalls and a lack of access to training for women and racial minorities in industries that traditionally haven’t welcomed them, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission heard April 5.

The commission’s first public meeting in the Trump administration resembled a workforce development forum more than the agency’s usual inquiries into employment practices that can result in discrimination.

The agency’s name includes “employment opportunity,” EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic (R) emphasized as she opened the meeting. Lipnic, an EEOC commissioner since 2010, previously served as an assistant labor secretary in the George W. Bush administration.

The U.S. in January had 5.8 million unfilled jobs available, including many in the skilled trades, Lipnic said.

The EEOC wants to see how it could help reduce a “skills gap” that prevents some workers from finding and keeping jobs, she said.

Eliminating barriers to recruitment and hiring is a long-standing EEOC enforcement priority, EEOC Commissioner Jenny Yang (D) said.

Discrimination in hiring and on the job is “unfortunately still a reality,” said Yang, who was the EEOC chair during the last two years of the Obama administration.

A 2016 EEOC hearing showed the technology industry, for example, hasn’t done well in hiring and advancing women and some racial minorities, Yang said.

The U.S. economy would benefit greatly if “we remove the barriers” to “optimal allocation of talent,” she said.

Why the Gaps?

A public education system that doesn’t prepare students for the working world and an “image” problem for manufacturing, construction and other “blue-collar” jobs help drive the skills gap, the meeting witnesses said.

Many people looking for work lack the mathematics, computer and technical skills to fill the available jobs in growth sectors, said Aparna Mathur, resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

There’s also a “stigma” attached to working in manufacturing that’s based on outmoded images of dirty, physical, dead-end jobs that’s not the reality in most modern factories, Mathur said.

Secondary schools “do a disservice” by telling students admission to a four-year college is the only possible path to success, said Michael D’Ambrose, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Chicago.

About 80 percent of U.S. manufacturing companies have “a severe to moderate shortage” of workers for skilled manufacturing jobs, D’Ambrose testified.

The education system “needs to place a bigger premium” on “turning out skilled, job-ready” individuals, he said.

Stronger “linkages” between schools and the world of work would help, D’Ambrose said.

The U.S. needs a “strategy for workforce development,” he said. The EEOC could partner with other government agencies, employers and other interested parties to help make it happen, D’Ambrose said.

Don’t Cut Training Support

Joint apprenticeship programs in construction allow trainees to “earn and learn” while mastering portable skills, said Kenneth Rigmaiden, president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

The Finishing Trades Institute helps train about 15,500 apprentices per year, Rigmaiden said. Federally funded construction alone pumped $22.5 billion into building projects last year, he said. Studies indicate 18 jobs are created for every $1 million spent on construction, he added.

But the union and industry “still have difficulty attracting enough apprentices to fill the need,” Rigmaiden said.

The “conventional wisdom” is that “only a college education is a path to a meaningful, good paying career,” he said. “This needs to change.”

Fewer school vocational education programs partly explains why students have less interest in the trades, he said. More pathways from high schools to the skilled trades need to be developed, Rigmaiden said

The Painters union partners with the Labor Department’s Job Corps to provide skills training to under-served youths, Rigmaiden said. But the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts could scuttle that program, he said.

Such programs “can’t be cut” if the U.S, is serious about addressing its skills gap, Rigmaiden said.

Infrastructure Boom—Then Bust?

The Trump administration is also proposing a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure projects over the next 10 years that could create up to 11 million jobs if enacted, said Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

The work would include construction, transportation and materials handling jobs that pay well, don’t require a four-year degree and benefit both the workers and society at large, Smith said.

But there’s also a “longer-term challenge”—skills learned through infrastructure work would be transferable to other types of jobs once the “boom” is over, Smith said.

Mason Bishop, a former Labor Department official who’s now a principal in WorkED Consulting LLC, said “inherent bias” still limits the access of women and some racial minorities to training and jobs in fields including technology and advanced manufacturing.

He said “industry-based credentials,” which promote worker flexibility, “competency-based education” and continued support for apprenticeships, internships and networks all should be encouraged.

Diversity Challenges Remain

The painters union is working toward a “more diverse population” of apprentices and workers in the building trades, Rigmaiden said in response to Lipnic’s questions.

That means “building relationships” in communities where racial minorities are highly represented, he said. It also means a union with greater representation of female and minority members.

“Things have gotten better, but they’re still not 100 percent,” Rigmaiden said.

EEOC Commissoner Chai Feldblum (D) asked what roles the EEOC could play to help improve the “image” of the skilled trades and industry diversity.

A willingness by the EEOC and other government representatives to “walk into these under-served communities with the right message” would be a start, said Montez King, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the witnesses statements is available at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/meetings/4-5-17/index.cfm .

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