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Satterwhite: It’s Not About the Jobs, Stupid

On the eve of the Republican Primary in New Hampshire I’m driving home from the office and listening to the news on NPR. Steve Inskeep is talking to a group of six women in Derry, N.H, asking them to weigh in on important issues in this election.

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His interview turns to Samantha Boudreau, a 21 year old student. Boudreau believes, as a lot of politicians do, that job creation is a big issue in this election. She will be graduating in May and, she says, “I'm going to have significant student loans to pay off, so getting a job is very important.”

Without missing beat, Inskeep asks Boudreau how much in student loans she owes.

“Over $140,000” Boudreau says.

A woman’s voice in the background says “Oh, my god.”

My thoughts exactly.

This election year I’ll bet we’ll be hearing a lot about creating jobs and putting Americans back to work. Both parties have a jobs creation plan.

Some proposed plans want to stimulate small business incentives for hiring where, as some believe, most new jobs are created. Some aspire to fixing the education system so that more students enter into high-demand fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, more commonly referred to as STEM fields.

It’s a topic that creates warm and fuzzy sound bites and brings hope to the unemployed and disenfranchised. But don’t be fooled about the rhetoric. Any smart politician knows it’s not about job creation. It’s about job fulfillment.

Right now there are millions of jobs in America going unfilled because we don’t have enough qualified people to fill them.

It’s not about the jobs. And it’s not about changing the education system either. In fact, I’m dumbfounded by the cost of higher education today. Costs of colleges and universities are skyrocketing, putting them out of reach for most middle class Americans. Tuition and fees at public universities, according to the College Board, have surged almost 130% over the last 20 years -- while middle class incomes have stagnated.

Like Boudreau, two thirds of students graduating have student loan debt, at an average $23,186. Of those, about half will still be repaying their loans in 20 years, according to FinAid.org. And, for many, that may very well mean they won't be able to buy a home, save for retirement, or fund the next generation's education.

On the other hand, the world of work has changed. America may never be the manufacturing center of the universe again. But many of the job losses are being replaced by other opportunities that qualified and trained employees could do. Though the numbers and projections vary some, there are an estimated 3-5 million jobs currently available and sitting unfilled because we do not have the workers with the proper skills and training to fill them.

A recent position paper from Microsoft says that we will have 2 million unfilled job openings by 2014 in the STEM fields. It could be worse. Some estimates of the shortage are much higher than that.

Yes, there are an estimated 15 million Americans out of work. And, that number is sure to grow. In fact, one study conducted by The McGraw-Hill Research Foundation put a number on what will happen next. Their research predicts a shortfall of more than 35 million skilled and educated workers over the next 30 years in addition to the millions that are open and unfilled right now. Other research conducted by interested parties on all sides of the issue paints a similarly chilling portrait.

I feel a deep sense of empathy for them not only because they’re struggling to make ends meet for them and their families, but because there’s dignity in work and earning a living and doing something productive in the world.

On a macro level, these numbers are stunning to me. But on a micro level, I believe them because I wake up every day and begin a frantic search for qualified people to fill critical roles in my own organization. And, all the evidence says that the numbers in my world will only continue to get worse unless we address them in some way now.

You see, I work in the data storage industry, one of the fastest-growing segments in the high tech business. According to an annual study from IDC, a renowned provider of global intelligence in the IT industry, the data storage world is doubling every 2 years, and will increase by a factor of 50 in the next decade.

Yet, the number of workers who can design, manage, and support these systems is growing by a factor of only 1.5. These are the people I’m looking for - highly skilled, technical workers for data storage jobs in an industry that didn’t even exist just a few short years ago.

This is the pain my colleagues and I feel every day. If the definition of full employment is a 5% unemployment rate, then, here in the middle of The Great Recession, we in the data storage business are actually experiencing negative unemployment!

My industry is a perfect, real world example of what’s being labeled as the Skills Gap. But it’s not just the high tech industry. All across America, in just about every industry, and arguably all around the world, we have too many workers that lack the technical, professional and soft skills to get jobs in today’s market.

The annual Manpower Group Talent Shortage Surveysays that 75% of employers globally cite a lack of experience, skills or knowledge as the primary reason for the difficulty in filling open positions today. But with a mere 1 in 5 employers investing in training and education to fill these jobs, the gap is only going to get wider.

But the consensus is clear: American workers are woefully underprepared for the future for the most part, and they lack the skills necessary to function in the new world of work.

Something has to be done, and done now.

So what do we do?

TIME TO THINK BIG

As an entrepreneur, I like to think big. Big thinking gets the ball rolling, puts us in action and makes things happen. But, as Chip and Dan Heath describe in their groundbreaking book, Switch, sometimes big problems can be solved by taking some different and maybe smaller and doable steps.

Many would suggest that more and bigger investments and changes in our educational system to adequately prepare students for their chosen fields is absolutely a long term solution. That may be true.

Although I would argue that we already invest billions of dollars in our education system year after year and yet the numbers of high school graduates is getting smaller. And, the basic literacy and math skills of the ones who do graduate are getting worse.

Let me be clear: I’m not here to pick a fight with education. I think there’s validity in the intelligent debate on how to get government, education and business working together.

But there are millions of Americans out of work today that are already beyond school. So fixing the education system for the future doesn’t put Americans back to work today and doesn’t make a dent in the millions of unfilled jobs that companies are urgently trying to fill today.

Call me crazy, but I believe we’re at a unique moment of opportunity in our country’s history; an unprecedented opportunity if we handle it right. And, handling it “right” is going to require a sizable paradigm shift in how we educate and prepare young people to take their place in the workforce.

So, we see the problem. What is the solution?

I suggest that we focus our energy today on putting millions of Americans back to work today by retraining, re-skilling or up-skilling the existing workforce for the jobs that are available now.

And I’d even suggest that we boldly go one step further – instead of just training for jobs, we can and should take this opportunity in our history to create the most dynamic and productive workforce in the world.

In fact, we’ve already had great success in training people in weeks and months, not years, when we focus on five vital success factors, or what I’ll call the SKIPP School:

  • Skills: We can provide specific skills training conducted in an intense boot camp style, followed by a period of apprenticeship. Unlike a traditional college or university, we can retrain and re-skill people in weeks or months on very specific jobs and expertise instead of 2 to 4 years of classroom theory. Plus we eliminate the subjects typically required by colleges and universities that have no relevancy to a specific job.
  • Knowledge: Employers get frustrated when workers don’t have the requisite level of basic reading, writing and math to function productively in their jobs. Our education system is failing. So, instead of fixing education, let’s refocus our energy to make sure everyone has basic, medium and advanced level skills in business math, literacy, etc. We have to have a workforce that can read, write and do the math relevant to their jobs. Let’s provide this specific training in a way that gets the results we need now.
  • Interpersonal Communication: In order to be effective in any job, people have to be able to speak the language. Whether it’s standing and delivering a presentation, writing a simple email to make or respond to a request, or communicating with colleagues and managers, we have to teach workers basic business communication skills so they can get, keep, and grow in a job.
  • Professional Development: Many argue that workers today don’t understand the new world of work and the career paths available to them. I would argue that everyone has dreams and aspirations for the future, no matter where they are today. So let’s provide people specific industry knowledge, where it’s going, why we do what we do and what the career path is.
  • Personal Development: As an employer, I need people that are well rounded and healthy in all areas of their life. So let’s train people to get a job, but let’s also train them to grow as people. That means, mentally, physically, financially and spiritually. This training is available to me and you. It’s out there today. It should be accessible to everyone. We should give people the tools today to live a healthy lifestyle but we could also create an ongoing personal development program that could be accessible to everyone even after they leave this training program.

This is how we will put people back to work in months, not years. And it won’t cost $140,000 like it did Ms. Boudreau.

It will not only put people back to work, it will create the most employable, healthy and productive workforce in the world. I truly believe this because I see it working today – it’s not mere theory or another utopian idea.

We all have a stake in the outcome. I believe that we can figure out together what success in this endeavor would look like, and how to build a system that not only encourages it, but practically guarantees it to those who want to make the effort.

Steve Satterwhite is CEO of Entellligence IT, a fast-growing organization in the data storage industry. He is passionate about starting the conversations needed to solve the skills gap in this country and putting people back to work now. His forthcoming book about the subject will publish in 2012. And if you want to join the discussion, email him at steves@entelligence.com.