The United States needs to re-think workforce development
Originally published in The Hill
Over the next decade, a skills gap in manufacturing may leave an estimated 2.4 million jobs unfilled in the United States. This is not only a major problem for American businesses and the economy, but also a tragic loss of opportunity. The manufacturing industry offers immense benefits and the satisfaction that a stable, well-paying job can provide. But there’s a big problem. Manufacturing faces a perception issue and fewer students are pursuing these careers because many simply aren’t aware of what opportunities lie ahead. The good news is this is fixable. Among the solutions are an increased emphasis on technical education programs where students graduate with the skills necessary to fill jobs, changing the public perception of manufacturing jobs to reflect their status as high-tech professions, and encouraging companies to invest and prioritize job training and continuing education for their employees.
The first and easiest step is encouraging enrollment in technical colleges at the community and junior college level. While four-year university programs are what high schoolers are typically pushed to pursue and they provide great benefits, it may not be the right track for every student and often involves taking out debilitating student loans. As an alternative, society needs to embrace and educate our young people about other good options that exist. Let’s seize the opportunity now while they work to determine their career paths and prepare for professional life.
Perhaps one reason why young people aren’t entering into these technical programs that will place them in a job-market filled with openings is a perception that these programs are less admired than four-year university programs. This is a perception that society and companies must work to change. Schools like San Jacinto College, a community college in the greater Houston area, prepare their students for high-tech jobs that produce real, tangible products, and play an essential role in our economy and society. The school offers world-class petrochemical degrees and certificates in electrical technology, environmental health and safety technology, welding, and process technology that position students for success immediately upon graduation, most often with a much more manageable level of student debt. These are rewarding jobs currently sitting unfilled that could position them for financial success. This financial success helps lay the foundation for a happy and productive life, and we believe there is nothing more admirable than that.
American companies must also do more to promote workforce development and continuing education. LyondellBasell continually looks for new ways to contribute to workforce development and help employees advance and grow. LyondellBasell is a future-focused company committed to ensuring the next generation of workers is set up for success. That’s why all new engineers are partnered with a senior engineering mentor who can provide guidance and feedback. The company also recently donated $5 million and hundreds of volunteer hours to San Jacinto College to position the school as a training hub for the petrochemical industry in the U.S. Additionally, LyondellBasell contributes to transition training skill initiatives for veterans to help our nation’s heroes in their next career.
Legislation also plays a vital role. We need support for programs that promote an educated and skilled workforce to meet industry’s labor needs. This includes securing the necessary funding for career and technical education, expanding dual credit opportunities between public junior colleges and high schools, while also supporting programs that create workforce training apprenticeship programs.
One of the principles that have made our country so successful and a beacon for the world is the belief that every American should have the opportunity to succeed if they put in the hard work and take initiative. The enormous number of unfilled manufacturing positions represents vast untapped potential and presents a clear opportunity for changes in policies and attitudes to quickly result in greater social mobility, increased economic success, and improved outcomes for the next generation of American workers.
Congressman Brian Babin is the U.S. Representative from the Texas 36th District. Larry Taylor is the Texas state senator from the 11th Senate District. Bhavesh V. (Bob) Patel is the CEO of LyondellBasell, one of the largest plastics, chemicals, and refining companies in the world.