×

Time to skill up, America!

With the U.S. economy and job market feeling the forces of globalization and the ever-increasing pace of technological change, the key to the nation's economic success in the years to come will be a skilled, well educated and productive workforce.

However, there are outdated educational practices that are failing to equip students with the knowledge and skills required for the jobs that are, and will be, available into the 21st Century. The education system doesn't give enough weight to practical and technical skills, to the hands-on learning that informs the real-world skills that companies actually need.


Izabela Habur | Vetta | Getty Images

Also at the core of this challenge, of course, is educational access and affordability. With U.S. student loan debt reaching $1.2 trillion dollars, and the average four-year college graduate leaving school saddled with $30,000 in debt, things simply must change.

Read MoreHow to get your student loans forgiven

The fact is, the nation is facing a grave problem that threatens the economic future of every worker, every company, and the country at large. Around 10 million Americans are unemployed and millions of others are underemployed, yet over 5 million jobs remain unfilled because there are not enough people with the practical, real-world skills that companies need. The current skills gap is not only hampering the nations domestic growth; it's threatening the countries economic competitiveness on a global scale.

We know that we need skilled people to close this gap. We know that behind every successful economy you find an engaged and productive workforce. We also know that the cost of living is rising and even the minimum wage, for most people, is not enough to get by. And we know that by end of this decade that one in three jobs will require some higher education. So how can America skill up?

1. Lift the stigma hanging over vocational and technical education.

Many people think that vocational and technical education leads straight to middle skills jobs that are menial and low-paying, with no opportunities for advancement. This couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that today, there is a bevy of respectable, well-compensated, upwardly mobile careers that don't require a traditional four-year education. Unfortunately, vocational study has a history of being seen as less respectable than attending university. But with unemployment and underemployment rates of college graduates at such high levels in the U.S., it's time for this perception to change. It's time to spread the word that skills training, perhaps now more than ever, is possibly the most reliable pathway to an interesting and rewarding career.

2. Get young people engaged in the real world of work.

Youth unemployment today is roughly 3 times the national unemployment rate. The reason: too few US high school students graduate with marketable skills. The erosion of vocational education, apprenticeships and traineeships in the nation's secondary schools has practically guaranteed this tragic situation.

Read MoreMillennials lazy? Ask the 'Three Little Pigs'

Other economically healthy nations place far more emphasis on vocational education, apprenticeships an dtraineeships, with low youth unemployment one reward. Switzerland, for example, has around 3 percent unemployed young people. Germany has about 6 percent. Among northern and central European countries, vocational training is part of mainstream education; between 40 percent and 70 percent of high-school students opt for vocational education, which combines both classroom and on-the-job learning over three years. On completion, they have a qualification that carries real weight in the labor market and a pathway to even higher levels of education and earnings.

Fortunately, the occupation-oriented associate degrees offered by the nation's community and technical colleges have opened doors of opportunity to millions of young people who never had the benefit of "voc ed." Millions more should follow their lead. So, too, should the 53 percent of recent college grads who are either unemployed or underemployed. Let's face it: A four-year degree in history, English, or sociology might not be a winning ticket in today's job market. But couple that baccalaureate with an associate degree in radiation therapy, robotics, dental hygiene, nursing, or information system, and you have a winning skillset needed in today's economy.

3. Arming our future generation with real workplace skills (and that means at least considering free universal community college).

In the coming decades, the most attractive job candidates in just about every field or industry will be those whose resumes boast not only strong academics, but also a set of practical, "real world" workplace skills.

Read MoreDriverless cars and death: The best job of 2015

Community college is a great place for people to develop both. The skills education acquired at community college offer graduates the opportunity to command wages and salaries equal to — and sometime better — than those of the average college graduate. One-third of two-year college grads with occupational majors, in fact, out-earn their four-year college peers. And contrary to what you may think, a community college education doesn't just open the door to low wage, low prestige, manual work; to the contrary, programs offered by community colleges can lead to well-paying jobs in fields like health care, the culinary arts, information technology, engineering and advanced manufacturing, among others.

America: It's time to skill up!

Commentary by Nicholas Wyman, the CEO of the Institute of Workplace Skills and Innovation and Skilling Australia. He is also the author of "Job U: How to Find Wealth and Success by Developing the Skills Companies Actually Need." Follow him on Twitter @nicholas_wyman.