Working together

Employers and educators team up to alleviate shortage of middle-skill workers

Richard Humphreys
30 October 2019

6 min read

From welders and boilermakers to health care technicians and airline pilots, countries worldwide are facing a profound shortage of middle-skill workers. To close the gap, businesses and educators are teaming up to change out-of-date attitudes about these vital jobs, then recruit and train students for positions with local employers. 

An ever-growing skills gap is threatening the sustainability of businesses worldwide, but not in the high-tech jobs you might expect. For many businesses the bigger challenge is in “middle-skill” jobs – welders, boilermakers, pilots, health care technicians and more – that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.

In the United States, for example, the National Skills Coalition (NSC) based in Washington, DC, reports that 53% of jobs are middle skill but only 43% of US workers are trained at this level. It’s a massive gap that leaves millions of jobs unfilled, even as millions of unemployed or underemployed college graduates struggle to pay massive student loans amassed while pursuing four-year degrees. And it’s not just a US problem. A 2018 study by French investment bank Bifrance, titled “Attracting talent to SMEs and ETIs,” found that nine out of 10 mid-sized companies in France are facing recruitment difficulties. Across Europe, in Japan and India – in most industrialized countries, in fact - employers report the same.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the UK, in Africa, or the US,” said Daniel Shrader, dean of technology at Orange Coast College (OCC) in California. “We need these middle skills to improve our environment, to be able to manufacture locally, and to develop stronger, more viable communities.”


Dominique Sennedot, director of Le Campus des Industries Navales – a school in France that trains workers for the marine industries – sees the impact on a daily basis. 

“The naval industry in France currently employs around 42,000 people and is expected to create 6,000 more jobs in the next three years,” he said. “We have identified 16 trades in need of qualified employees. The fact that we lack people in these trades forces some companies to refuse contracts because they will not be able to honor them.”

In Washington state on the US west coast, Mary Kaye Bredeson, executive director for the Center of Excellence for Aerospace & Advanced Manufacturing at Everett Community College, also sees the gap – one that will grow as middle-skill workers continue to retire.

“There are going to be over 2 million unfilled jobs in the next decade,” she said. One reason for the shortfall? “Parents, educators and society have been saying that a four-year degree is what you need to be successful.”

But middle-skill jobs can be just as lucrative and offer as much career advancement as many four-year college programs without the high expense, she said. And, unlike degrees in history or sociology, for example, demand for these skills is high. In the aerospace sector, “about 50% of the jobs require a four-year degree and 50% of the jobs require technicians,” Bredeson said. “So I think you are going to see more and more professional organizations really sounding that alarm bell.”

Degree programs at four-year colleges don’t offer the hands-on learning opportunities that many employers need, said Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied the issue of middle-skills education. Teaching of those skills tends to be concentrated in technical schools and community colleges, which suffer from funding shortages. US government funding goes mostly to four-year colleges and their students, he said, with “significantly less annual funding for skills training and retraining and almost none for such training when it’s provided by employers.”

As a result, “work-based learning opportunities such as apprenticeships have stagnated,” Fuller said. “This means that businesses’ candidate pools are filled with people with skills that are not relevant to employers’ needs.

Meanwhile, technology advancements continue to drive up the cost of training middle-skills workers, whose roles are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

“When you are buying advanced technology equipment to make things, the cost is substantial to any institution,” Shrader said. “However, this investment helps build secondary school students’ awareness and exposure to attractive technical careers and substantially improves the throughput to staffing industrial middle-skill jobs.”


Increasingly, businesses are stepping up to close the gap, teaming up with educators to develop middle-skills training, recruit students and provide the internships that prepare them for the realities of high-tech workplaces. One such initiative is CampusFab, a training facility near Paris created by a consortium of French manufacturers, apprenticeship training centers and professional organizations.

“We created CampusFab to provide a response to the problem through initial training, apprenticeships or on-the-job training,” said Betrand Delahaye, deputy human resources director at French aerospace manufacturer Safran. The project has also received financial support from the French state and Paris regional governments.

Similarly, Le Campus des Industries Navales is collaborating with major industrialists in western France, who help tune its educational offerings to their industry’s needs.

“The campus will serve as a link between the expression of needs from the industrialists and the training operators, so that the training operators will integrate the complementary skill blocks in order to have ‘employable’ students,” Sennedot said.

The CampusFab and Industries Navales initiatives are exactly what employers and educators should be doing, OCC’s Shrader said, adding that organizing education in the same manner that the manufacturing industry organizes a supply chain would be beneficial to both entities.

“Some parts required by first-tier manufacturers, companies like SpaceX or Northrop Grumman, are acquired through contracts with second-tier providers,” Shrader said. “The second- tier providers need more machinists and toolmakers than the colleges can provide, so we negotiate to be a third- tier provider. This arrangement results in revenue streams that can help offset college equipment upgrades, maintenance and material costs, while students get to manufacture industry-specified parts in a supportive educational environment.

“Second-tier manufacturers then can assess and improve the quality of student work, which improves instruction. Companies also can offer internships, which provide experience and job opportunities. Entering the supply chain in this manner infuses financial support to the community colleges, invigorates the educational process and engages important industry partners.”

In Washington state, where aerospace manufacturer Boeing is a major employer, Bredeson found that mechanical and electronics skills are in high demand. To address that shortage, she helped create the “Choose Aerospace” campaign to recruit students who might otherwise have been lost to the region’s other high-profile employer: Amazon.

Students who participate in the “Choose Aerospace” seminars quickly discover why middle-skills jobs are so lucrative: because workers need to be skilled in using many of the high-tech industry’s most advanced technologies.

“With the help of other partners, a lot of colleges are now using artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality,” Bredeson said. “In the medical field, for example, they’re using avatars and simulators, rather than expensive dummies, to train medical nurses. It makes learning more real.”


The growing trend of businesses teaming with educators to identify in-demand skills and develop relevant training is a positive development, Harvard’s Fuller said. “Only business can really define what it’s looking for and anticipate what it will need in the future,” he said.

The Aviation Maintenance Technology program at Orange Coast College in California prepares students for high-demand middle-skills jobs that include aircraft maintenance technician and avionics specialist. (Image © Orange Coast College)

Katie Spiker, senior federal policy analyst at NSC, said that education-business partnerships empower companies to identify the shared goals and needs of an entire industry.

“They help businesses work more efficiently with community and technical colleges, as well as community organizations that can help supplement business investment in workforce development,” she said. “They also help education providers best tailor or develop curriculums that effectively address industry demands.”

Business-education collaboration also helps to ensure that the skills being taught remain current as technology advances and roles continuously evolve. And that collaboration is most effective, Shrader said, when it happens community by community.

“Integrating education preparation and pathways from secondary schools through colleges to employment opportunities is a critical factor,” Shrader said. “It’s all about local schools working together and collaborating on throughput. An early start in secondary school to engineering, design and manufacturing concepts through robotics, virtual experience, digital technology, college tours and projects all increase students’ awareness of, and aptitude for, technical college training programs and industry career opportunities. Moreover, this early start allows community colleges to deliver a more advanced and robust curricula, better preparing students for advanced study, industry or entrepreneurial pursuits. It’s cost-effective and facilitates local and regional improvement. This is our educational equivalent of thinking globally, acting locally.”

Bredeson, who acts as a point of contact between industry partners and 34 community colleges in Washington state, agrees. “We bring industries to our colleges and we do what we call a DACUM to develop a curriculum, since industries have had a hard time telling the [individual] colleges why their particular mechatronics program wasn’t robust enough for industry.” By facilitating the discussions, Bredeson helps both sides communicate clearly. To ensure success, Bredeson said, programs need to be offered to students before they reach high school.

“In Kenosha, Wisconsin, there’s a program that partners industries, schools and a few companies together,” she said. “From second grade, every child visits a manufacturing lab once a week, which removes the stereotype that only males go into manufacturing and construction. It also gives students basic skills, emphasizing the importance of safety, math and teamwork. It’s a wonderful model and a great way to get them involved in the digital world. Can you imagine if every little boy and girl gets introduced to the manufacturing lab at that young age?”

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