Publication | ThinkSet

The Reason Behind the Skilled Labor Shortage in America

Cesar Maldonado

Fall 2018

A systemic approach can improve the educational supply chain

The shortage of skilled labor has been a persistent drag on the US economy, and a recurring theme in our public sphere, for nearly 30 years. You’ve undoubtedly seen the headlines.

You might have also heard the repetitious arguments and finger-pointing that follow those headlines: businesses blame the lack of qualified candidates, labor economists blame businesses for stagnant wage growth and futurists blame technology for replacing people with machines. And while debates about what’s causing the labor shortage drag on, everyone seems to agree that community colleges should be the cure. As such, we’ve seen a procession of well-intentioned but ultimately limited solutions: be it President Obama’s 2015 plan to support community colleges or the Trump administration’s National Council for the American Worker initiatives.

In my role as chancellor of Houston Community College (HCC), one of the largest community college systems in the country, I think about these issues a lot—and I believe that while we’re pointing fingers and grasping for quick fixes, we’re missing something: a frank acknowledgment that the most fundamental barrier to growing a 21st-century workforce stems from our collective failure to adopt a systemic approach for moving students through the educational supply chain.

From the time a student enters kindergarten to the moment she graduates college, she engages with a succession of institutions—her school district does the educational heavy lifting, community organizations provide activities and other support aimed at helping her develop real-world knowledge and skills, any number of government programs deliver direct and indirect financial support and businesses hire her for part-time jobs and internships that allow her to develop workplace skills.

In any other industry, those institutions would pour immense effort into optimizing their supply chain, ironing out bugs, exploiting efficiencies and adjusting processes to ensure that each is adding value and that the ultimate product will satisfy market demand. When a new Boeing jet rolls out of the hangar or an iPhone gets delivered to your doorstep, it’s a marvel not only of engineering but also of supply-chain management, the result of highly calibrated coordination among manufacturing facilities and parts suppliers all over the world. Each participant knows that its success, financially and otherwise, hinges not just on meeting expectations on its assigned tasks, but also on the ultimate delivery of an aircraft or smartphone that customers want to buy.

No such coordination exists in our educational system. In fact, our institutions remain as parochial as ever. Schools, school systems, community organizations, trade groups and other stakeholders each develop their own missions, goals and governance structures, often with little regard for what’s happening elsewhere in the ecosystem. If we really want to address the skilled labor shortage problem, this has to change.

Getting there requires serious effort but is far from impossible. Here are three things that need to happen.

Three ways to help end the skilled labor shortage

Mission alignment and a radical commitment to collaboration

Effective business leaders know that no effort, big or small, is likely to succeed without mission alignment. That is, starting at the highest levels of the organization and running right down to the people on the front lines, everyone must be on the same page about what they want to achieve and how they will achieve it. In education, this mission happens to be radically simple: Prepare students to be productive, successful members of society.

And yet getting disparate institutions to align on how to achieve this together is easier said than done. Even at the level of a single institution it can be challenging. When we first began our Houston Connect initiative—aimed at creating educational pathways for students transferring to four-year universities—almost no one showed up to the meetings. Over time, though, we made it personal. We sent out personalized invitations; we held dinners and other social gatherings to build trust and rapport. And once we got people into the room, we worked hard to communicate and stay focused on the reason they were there in the first place, because we know that partnerships like these do best when people can see a real connection between what’s discussed in a meeting and the actual work they’re doing day in and day out. In this way, mission alignment must go further than simply agreeing we want students to succeed; we must also work to align that goal with the day-to-day actions of the organizations involved, too.

Breaking down educational silos

Organizations—especially educational institutions—can’t expect to collaborate effectively with the wider world if they can’t first collaborate with each other. Given our country’s educational incentive structures, state and federal regulations, and funding shortages, it’s no surprise that institutions like HCC have been historically siloed.

In an age when the pace of technological change requires more and more agility—among not only businesses but also workers and educators—academic institutions can no longer afford to move things along at their normal pace.

At HCC, we’ve taken a middle-out approach, empowering mid-management, to make us as agile as we teach our students to be. Rather than have our six colleges operate independent of one another, we’ve established incentives that encourage a shared services approach. So when the University of Houston-Downtown wanted to create a bachelors in nursing program to provide badly needed nursing capacity, it was challenged by the typical startup lag time and extensive funding required to open such a highly technical program. But by establishing a joint venture with us, where our associate-degree program links with theirs (sharing labs, faculty and technology), we’ve not only created a seamless process for our students but also saved them—and taxpayers—money. And rather than spend two or three years getting it off the ground, we did it in a year.

An active role for business

As the ultimate customer of the educational system, the private sector has to make its needs explicit and clear. That means going beyond technical qualifications and minimum job requirements and articulating the range of skills, including soft ones, the sector wants academia to instill. At HCC, we’ve taken steps in this direction through the formation of advisory councils composed of business leaders who regularly consult with us on curricula and talent needs. Those conversations reveal valuable insights that we can’t get anywhere else. For instance, by listening to tech firms, we learned that they don’t seek only creativity but also applied creativity that can bridge the gap between knowing and doing. So while a skill like coding may be valuable, we also know now that it isn’t valuable in and of itself—to sell themselves to employers, coders need to have design skills relevant to the user interfaces they’ll work on. That’s why, at HCC, we don’t just offer an iOS Coding School, but an iOS Coding and Design School.

Our persistent skilled labor shortage reflects a broader tension among academic institutions—too many remain resistant or unable to embrace change in a world where the pace of technology and innovation is thrusting change upon them. In this environment, it’s easy to point fingers and settle for narrow, short-term fixes.

Instead, we must take the broad view, recognizing that to drive real transformation and instill true agility in today’s fast-paced climate, we can’t all look inward for solutions to a problem that is bigger than any one organization. Instead, we must find common cause and work together. If we do, the outlook for our labor force, our economy and our future will grow brighter by the day.

Dr. Cesar Maldonado was chancellor of Houston Community College at the time of publication.