Opinion - Top States for Business

These states are leading the way with programs to create jobs for workers lacking a college degree

Art Bilger, Founder and CEO of WorkingNation
Key Points
  • Many Americans are in lower-paying jobs because they don't have the skills needed to get a better job.
  • North Carolina, Mississippi, Montana and Rhode Island are among states focusing on career apprenticeship programs.
Mike Petters, Huntington Ingalls Industries CEO with workers.

The world of work is changing — faster than we ever could have predicted. Most Americans are still woefully unprepared for the rapidly-accelerating changes already underway, let alone the work environment being ushered in by artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, bots, and other transformative and disruptive technologies.

While the headline jobs numbers seem to indicate a strong workforce and low unemployment, the 3.7 percent unemployment rate doesn't take into account underemployment — people in lower-paying jobs because they don't have the skills needed to get a better job. Additionally, we know that 7.3 million jobs are currently open, and many employers are saying they can't find skilled workers, particularly lower- and middle-skill workers.

For example, there is a high level of mismatch in the health-care industry between the type of skills held by job seekers and those wanted by those needing to hire workers, according to Indeed Hiring Lab. Unfilled jobs in the tech sector are expected to rise to over one million by 2020, yet joblessness among underserved populations is increasing, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Generations of systemic barriers to economic opportunity and social mobility have made it exceedingly difficult for people in lower-income and underserved communities to earn college degrees, certificates, industry certifications, or other quality credentials needed to compete for these new jobs.

Multi-tiered collaboration can lead to opportunities to level the academic and economic playing field for disenfranchised communities, arming them with the skills needed to attain economic security and enables them to live a dignified life. There are several states already making connections with local business leaders to tackle this crucial issue, many through exposure to paid, career pathway learning opportunities.

States leading the way

In Mississippi, Huntington Ingalls International is the largest private employer in the state and it has a program that the Republican Governor Phil Bryant has highlighted. "Their apprenticeship program is so very important. We manufacture war ships at Ingalls. They build 70 percent of the combat vessels the Navy is sailing today," Bryant recently told me on the sidelines of a conference.

To qualify for admission, applicants need to be 18 years or older, and have either a high school diploma or GED. The starting wage is $19.80 an hour, or more than $41,000 a year, with no tuition costs. The on-the-job training leads to highly-skilled careers in the shipbuilding industry.

Democratic Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo told us that Real Jobs Rhode Island is pushing the envelope and getting "creative" about the industries with which it works. "When the commercial fishing industry came to us that was a new one. We have a large and vibrant commercial fishing industry, but it's an aging industry."

RJRI teamed with the fisheries industry and a local university to create a hands-on apprentice program which teaches navigation, vessel maintenance, data collection, species identification and more.

We need to create a workforce attuned to life-long learning. Overcoming the employability gap requires the active participation of employers, non-profits, government leaders, and educational organizations on a grassroots level.

As the Montana state economy becomes more service-based, the demand for a technically trained skilled workforce is increasing. To help close the skills gap for its low-skilled workers, Montana continues to expand its Registered Apprenticeship program: Last year, more than 100 new apprenticeships, enrolling 815 new apprentices. The state boasts that nearly 90 percent of those apprentices remain in Montana to fill open jobs. And, according to the state, they make nearly $20,000 more than the average statewide annual wage.

"Our current and future workers must be prepared for a new environment and governors can lead the charge to create stronger connections between that education sector and the private sector," Montana Governor Steve Bullock told us at a recent meeting of the National Governors Association. "Our focus on future labor has to also be supplemented by investing in present workers," Bullock said. "We need to be working to scale up successful programs and develop new ones to reskill workers who are most vulnerable to rapid change in a changing economy."

In North Carolina, the state has partnered with Fidelity Investments and the North Carolina Business Committee for Education to create a free, work-based learning search tool called The Navigator. The portal allows employers to list in-person and virtual internships, apprenticeships, and other work-and-learn opportunities.

"In a 21st century economy, we can make every day career day, and to succeed in connecting education to careers, putting employers and educators together to give students a real taste of the skills they need," said Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, in a statement announcing the collaboration.

Over 7 million open jobs, more to come

Apprenticeship programs are important initiatives designed to help low- and middle-skilled workers, and those already at work, acquire the skills needed to fill the 7.3 million open jobs and jobs of the future. The federal government cites these benefits to employers and workers in support of their effectiveness:

  • Hands-on relevant on-the-job training in a variety of in-demand jobs
  • Customized training tailored to the specific needs of businesses, resulting in highly-skilled workers
  • Apprentices earn competitive wages from the first day of employment
  • The average annual wage for a fully-proficient worker who completes an apprenticeship is $50,000, compared to $28,000 for low-skilled workers
  • Workers are on their way to a career with little or no debt

Helping underserved communities find new career pathways raises the standard of living for these communities and increases the pipeline of skilled workers for businesses having trouble filling jobs.

To be clear, there is a gap in what employers need from their workers, both now and in the future, and the skills Americans actually have. It is not just unskilled laborers facing the threat of unemployment; technology is changing highly-skilled positions in white collar industries as well.

This major challenge requires a widespread movement toward creating a workforce that is resilient, able to navigate the changing workplace, and adapt. We need to create a workforce attuned to life-long learning. Overcoming the employability gap requires the active participation of employers, non-profits, government leaders, and educational organizations on a grassroots level. We are all in this together.

—By Art Bilger, founder and CEO of WorkingNation, a nonprofit that focuses on solutions to the widening jobs skills gap