Op-Ed: Time to promote vocational and tech skills careers

By Todd Maisch – 

With the nation’s unemployment rate continuing to drop, labor markets are in an ever-tightening vice, and Illinois employers are feeling the pain as they try to fill middle-skill jobs. There is a misguided belief that the skills gap exclusively hits at the top end of the labor market, in fields such as professional services, engineering or computer sciences.

While there are critical shortages across many industries, the reality is that Illinois employers struggle most to find qualified employees in fields that require more than a high school diploma, but also certifications and skills not provided by a two or four-year college program.

As a result of this misconception, resources are being diverted away from vocational programs in our high schools, and soon-to-be graduates are being directed away from high-quality technical education programs, simply because they aren’t part of the traditional college track.

The reality is there are great careers available in the skilled trades, but not enough people with the right training and skills to fill them.

During the past several months, I had the opportunity to visit with hiring managers of dozens of companies in the state’s transportation industry. The career outlook for automotive and diesel technicians is incredibly strong due to Illinois’ position as a national transportation and logistics hub. But every employer I spoke with told me they simply can’t find enough qualified entry-level technicians to hire.

Many students, pushed toward college by well-intentioned adults, never have the opportunity to hear about other careers and educational paths available to them. Too often, because of old stigmas and outdated perceptions, students are guided away from pursuing a career in the skilled trades such as transportation technicians, building trades or manufacturing.

One hiring manager remarked during a program, “Why is it that being a medical technician is lauded by counselors and principals, but they try to talk students out of becoming a diesel technician?”

I didn’t have a good answer for him that day, and I’m still not sure I do.

If we want to help Illinois employers grow, and serve all our students, we have to stop categorizing skilled trades based on old ways of thinking. Beyond that, we have to embrace the reality that, while college may be right for many, it is not the only path to success and economic security.

The fact is, many industry-supported certificate and credentialing programs can be completed faster, at significantly lower cost, with as good, if not better long-term career outlooks than traditional liberal arts programs. Data in the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard shows that students who choose a quality post-secondary technical education may actually earn more, on average, 10 years after starting their program than peers at four-year liberal arts universities and two-year community colleges.

There is substantial value in a quality technical education, and there are countless high-quality, industry-supported training programs across Illinois that deliver skills that could take years or even a decade to earn on-the-job. These programs and providers need to be welcomed into our high schools by counselors, principals and parents, so that Illinois students are exposed to multiple paths that can lead to their future success.

Illinois’ economy will be better served if we support all students and adult learners in finding programs that provide relevant skills and lead to good jobs and careers.

(Todd Maisch is president & CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. First published in the Daily Herald.)