Workforce Development – Facing a Shortage of Skilled Labor

Workforce Development

As our fundraising efforts for economic development organizations and community colleges increasingly take shape around a strategic plan with workforce development at its core, we find ourselves taking part in this important, ongoing conversation. Sean Stockard, a Convergent fundraising professional, recently shared his insight on the issue with the International Economic Development Council’s ED Journal. We were pleased to receive permission to repost an excerpt from the article here and share it with our clients and friends in the nonprofit world.

This article was originally written for and published in the International Economic Development Council’s “Economic Development Journal.” IEDC is a non-profit, non-partisan membership organization serving economic developers.

The American workforce is facing a shortage in vocationally trained workers. Estimates place the shortage at as many as 2 million workers needed and indicate this number shows no signs of shrinking in the future. In fact, through attrition, retirement, and the expansion of our economy, this shortage is expected to grow over the next two to three decades, and beyond, if our current pace of skilled worker development is not addressed. 

This article focuses on rethinking vocational training as a solution to the labor shortage. It describes the stigma surrounding vocational education versus traditional education paths, the roles that high schools and community colleges play in developing our skilled workforce, and the effectiveness of internships and apprenticeships in preparing our workforce. The article also looks at some causes of this shortage and what economic development professionals can do to mitigate them. The personal perspectives and experiences of four longtime professionals in the economic development profession, along with other expert sources, helped form the content of this article.


Across the United States, there is a shortage of skilled workers that fall into the category of vocational labor. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that 3.5 million jobs will be created over the next ten years but 2 million will go unfilled. “During a House Committee on Small Business hearing in 2016, Chairman Steve Chabot said there is a lack of qualified people to fill vacancies in an industry that adds $2 trillion to the economy annually.” (Kris Powers, Vocational Training and the Shortage of Skilled Workers in America, ED4Online, March 28, 2017) 

What does a skilled labor shortage look like through the eyes of an economic development professional and how can the issue(s) be addressed? James Hagar, CEcD, economic development project manager, Port of Vancouver USA, discussed two examples of facing a skilled workforce shortage in his career. The first was when he was with the Portland Development Commission (PDC) in the early 2000s. The shortage specifically centered on manufacturing (welders, machinists, etc.). Hagar “formed a coalition consisting of PDC, the workforce training entity, the community colleges, and a temp firm that worked specifically in manufacturing with the manufacturers themselves.” The coalition developed a workforce plan that included company-specific training marketing manufacturing to youth and broader general training at the community college level, according to Hagar. The coalition also got the Portland public schools to re-open their vocational training school to support the industry. 

Hagar also noted a time when he worked with HDR Engineering on the OTIA III State Bridge program. “The bridge program was a 13-year, $1.8 billion program to repair or replace about 365 bridges in Oregon. In this case, there was a shortage of construction workers, particularly those who had done bridge work in the state.” His team worked with the state of Oregon, the various workforce training entities around Oregon, the Native American tribes, and the Associated General Contractors to create a basic training program so that new construction workers could enter the workforce as apprentices. The team also instituted an apprentice program on each project “so those apprentice workers could (over the duration of the program) earn enough time to become journeymen, making them marketable nationally.” 

Tim Chase, CEcD, FM, national sales manager for ProTRACKPlus, hired one of the first workforce development vice presidents in the profession back in 2006, which is a far more common position these days due to its necessity. Chase, after recognizing a shortage in his own backyard of Wichita Falls, TX, and wanting to prepare for the future, did something rather novel in 2006. “The first thing we did was to ask local companies to tell us their current and future needs, three and five years out. We combined these numbers to create a total demand and were going to use this to build a story that moving to Wichita Falls for one job was a good idea but even if that job played out, there were going to be lots more.” 

Both Hagar and Chase experienced the issue of a lack of skilled workers. They both provided innovative and out-of-the-box solutions, at least at the time, to help address their problems. Their experiences provide examples of how the economic development profession, the education profession, and industry can work together to solve skill shortage problems.


What causes this shortage in the first place? Part of it has to do with attrition and retirements in trade industries while part has to do with massive economic growth. As people retire from the trade industries there are not enough newly trained and skilled workers in the pipeline to take their places. Take plumbers for example. Peter, a Blogger on says, “In Texas, the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates higher than average retirements among plumbers in the next decade. Plumbers’ average age is quite a bit higher than most trades. In Texas, for example, the average master plumber is 58 years old.” (Peter, Where’s Plumbing Headed, Blog, December 12, 2017) Add to that the massive economic expansion that we are seeing not only in Texas but across the globe, and the gap between available jobs and available skilled workers to fill those jobs ever widens. There are other causes as well.

“In addition to retirements and economic expansion, other factors contribute to the shortage of skilled workforce, such as a lack of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, skills among workers, and a gradual decline of technical education programs in public high schools.” (Chairman Steve Chabot, House Committee on Small Business hearing in 2016) 

In his 2015 article, Why We Desperately Need to Bring Back Vocational Training in Schools, author Nicholas Wyman notes that throughout much of US history, classes such as woodworking and metal working were taught right alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. In the 1950s however, as students were divided into college bound and non-college bound categories, this changed. Students who appeared to be college bound were offered little to no vocational training and those that were not headed to college took basic academic courses along with shop courses. “The demise of vocational education at the high school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a wealth of career opportunities for both under-employed college grads and high school students looking for direct pathways to interesting, lucrative careers,” according to Kris Powers. 


So what role should our local school districts play in preparing our students and their parents to become the next generation of workers? “High schools have been tasked with so much and blamed for everything wrong in society,” according to Richard Cummins, Ph.D., president emeritus, Columbia Basin College, Pasco, Washington. 

Cummins references a book by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen and co-author Michael Horn, Disrupting Class, which he quotes as stating, “K-12 has been mandated to have no less than four value propositions. And, as they emphatically state, any actual business would not likely survive if it tried to deliver on more than one. These propositions include (a) make everyone a good citizen (until the 1950s); (b) have “something for everyone” after the 1960s; (c) make America competitive (Sputnik); and (d) every child succeeds (No Child Left Behind).” Cummins also notes that “In this landscape, vocational and technical has languished partly because our system disinhibits tracking (for both very good and some not-as-good reasons) and is very expensive (the labs required for good vocational education are much more than a college-prep curriculum).” 

For many students and their parents, there is a stigma associated with vocational training and alternative high schools. Cummins “totally believe(s) that…and alternative high schools in general have that stigma. Kids develop at different rates and are unique human beings … everyone’s oath should be honored and supported. I think the best way to lift the stigma is to have programs that lead to well-paying jobs.” Those high paying jobs do indeed exist in the vocational trades. According to, the median annual plumber salary in 2018 was $54,587, with a range usually between $47,478- $62,450 and according to, the average hourly wage for a machinist is $18 to $25/hr. 

So why the stigma? Why the hesitation? These are careers that offer wages at or above the national average, are in demand, and offer the ability to even own a business. “Deeper conversations with parents would certainly be helpful, but on the parent side of the equation, one has to factor that the achievement outcomes of students are indeed correlated with parental involvement, which is disproportionately correlated with race, ethnicity, and family income,” according to Cummins. “The problem is in our society, not our schools.” 

Hagar doesn’t believe that there is so much a stigma, as there is a “lack of understanding about what vocational education is and what it means.” He believes this can be mitigated by education around what a vocational student is and what having a vocational job rather than a college job really means. He notes that we all know hairdressers, electricians, and plumbers who make well above what a lot of professionals make.“I think if students are educated about these careers and the potential wages they can earn directly out of high school those stigmas will fall away – because many people view the worth of a job or skill by how much money you can make.” 

The fact that high schools and high school guidance counselors push students, and oftentimes their parents, toward the four-year college route is not all that surprising. This tunnel-vision, as Hagar points out, comes from “high school counselors (who have traditionally done the career planning) (who) are college graduates and thus emphasize the need for students to go to college over all other options. Why not? It’s what has worked for them. Career counselors at schools need to educate themselves on the full gamut of opportunities available to students in the region in which they operate. Too often they do not.” 

Both Cummins and Hagar acknowledge that education about what vocational skilled jobs are and the wages they offer can help in the destigmatization of vocational education. Further, one can conclude from their statements that educating the parents and teachers along with the students about all educational options outside of a traditional college education mindset will help as well. 


Understanding that there is a problem is the first step in solving it. But where do we go next? If students and their parents should be made aware of all the educational and career choices that exist after high school, when is the appropriate time to start this discussion? “It’s never too early,” according to Chase. He points to popular children’s shows such as Bob the Builder, Paw Patrol, and many others that are “all about making it cool to build and fix things. I love seeing this happen because it took several generations to get where we are and it will take a few generations to get things rebalanced.” 

“It should be discussed from about 4th grade on,” Hagar believes. “Each year schools should have a career day where different types of careers are discussed and different businesses can make presentations. I believe we wait way too long to start educating children on careers and what those can be.” 

Most companies think this discussion should occur early on as well. Debbie Menk, project manager with the consulting firm EMSI in Moscow, Idaho, notes that most companies they work with say middle school, and most certainly by the time students enter high school, is the time to start the career path and choices discussion. However, Menk also cautioned that kids should be allowed to figure out what they enjoy and then be encouraged from there. 

This line of thought plays out well as long as there are opportunities for the students to engage in non-traditional career and education choices. This is where part of the problem begins. Those opportunities do not necessarily exist equally across our education system. “There was a time when every child in the United States was taught more than just academics, when woodworking, welding, and cooking were part of the school curriculum. That changed more than 60 years ago, when the United States overhauled its education system to introduce tracking – the separation of academic and non-academic streams of students based on their perceived potential for college.” (Katherine Martinko, What happened to vocational training in schools – and can it come back?, July 21, 2016)

Regarding the right time to introduce vocational education as an option, Cummins believes that this is too often framed as “either/or” instead of “and.” “Some kids know exactly what they want to do as adults while more kids don’t…. this (discussion) needs to happen within families and at individual mentoring relationships of teachers and students. We need to let kids be kids, first and foremost, while steering them as helpfully as possible toward a goal. The biggest issue in these situations is to control for unconscious bias or overt prejudice on the part of the adult who has categorized a kid, as well as the imagination of the kid or the family, who don’t have a clear view of possibilities for the child when the family experience of work is limited to a job and not a career, and so forth.” This harkens back to Hagar’s belief that often guidance being given is tainted by the deliverers because the advice is biased towards their own experiences, which makes a lot of sense. How can we expect someone who has never made a weld, ran a CNC machine or set a head of hair to give sound and encouraging advice about these being excellent, well-paying career choices? There is no voice of experience there. 

Education is the key to developing a stronger base and better attitude towards vocational education among students, parents and even teachers. Economic development and education professionals interviewed for this article don’t hesitate to discuss this education and career path with their children. Hagar noted that he “discussed vocational options with both of (his) children and one obtained her LPN through the vocational school and worked a couple of years before going on to complete her RN/BSN.” While it was too late for his own children, Chase said that he was “currently mentoring his oldest grandson and helping him enroll in a motorcycle repair school.” And finally, Cummins noted that his “son was interested in sound engineering, so we investigated the best associate’s degree program in the state for that (at Shoreline Community College). He has since changed his mind and is headed to Central Washington University, but it is vital to us as parents that we encourage our kids’ interests rather than force them into careers where they will be unhappy and unfulfilled.” 

However, as Paul Fain points out, “community college leaders say vocational training is sorely in need of an image makeover.” (Spotlight on Vocational Training,, April 25, 2017) “It is considered a second choice, second-class,” said Patricia Hsieh, president of San Diego Miramar College in Fain’s article. It seems that parents and students alike do not see vocational education as a valid life choice that offers security and room for personal and professional improvement and growth. This poses an excellent opportunity for economic development professionals to begin playing a role in their local communities as advocates for vocational training and careers. 


The general consensus is that a shortage exists in vocationally skilled workers in this country. There are also some agreed upon ideas on how to address these shortages. Among them, earlier communication with both students and parents about the solid benefits of trade labor skills and the career paths they offer seems to be one of the most important steps to take. Ensuring that guidance is provided by someone with experience in the trades is important, giving an unbiased picture of vocational work and answering questions appropriately with real-life examples and stories relayed to interested students. 

Internships and apprenticeships need to be revived, included in school curriculums, and made available to students and parents looking for alternatives to traditional four-year colleges. Industry should be brought into the education system to offer avenues for training and employment after high school such as is being done in Lowell, Massachusetts. On-the-job training and apprenticeship programs should be encouraged for unskilled adults so that when a project is over, those unskilled workers have gained the skills they need to further their careers as was implemented in Oregon. Society as a whole must change its outlook on what is important versus what is popular if we are ever to make any real progress in this area. 

High schools and community colleges hold the key to preparing us as individuals for the future and ensuring individual success. They also hold the key to preparing us as a nation and ensuring national success on the world economic stage as we traverse onward into the third decade of the 21st century. High schools and community colleges have the tools to prepare us for the jobs that exist today and, more importantly, they can prepare us for the jobs that will exist tomorrow and well into the future. Finally, and certainly most importantly, as Cummins said early on, “it is vital to us as parents that we encourage our kids’ interests rather than force them into careers where they will be unhappy and unfulfilled.”

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