American Parents' Obsession With Status Is Keeping Kids Unemployed

Max Nisen

Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 7.9 percent, despite the fact that there are as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs open.

That's because employers frequently can't find people with the skills they need, even though many only take two-year degrees. Many students graduate four year schools saddled with debt, with no job opportunities in their field of study.

That's a problem we need to solve. One of the big issues that was raised at the Atlantic's conference on "Manufacturing Next Chapter" was that there's a stigma around manufacturing in America, particularly among parents, and a glorification of the four-year college.

Parents like the idea of manufacturing jobs. They just don't particularly like the idea of their kids having one. According to Jennifer McNelly, President of The Manufacturing institute,  "manufacturing jobs come in at the of the list of jobs people want in their community, but just 3 out of 10 parents want their own kinds to go into these jobs."

The United States hugely prefers academic over vocational paths, according to a McKinsey study:

Manufacturing jobs are seen as low status compared to those that require a four-year degree. That's despite the fact that college is getting more expensive, while its return becomes more uncertain. 

According to Alcoa's Vice President of Human Resources Natalie Schilling, it's because we have an outdated view of manufacturing. "We think of manufacturing jobs as ones where you go into work with a white shirt, and come out with a dirty shirt and dirty fingernails."

That's not the case any more. Parents are basing their negative viewpoint on the manufacturing jobs they grew up seeing, despite the fact that these these are increasingly complex, computer based, and high paying jobs. The reality is that "a dvanced manufacturing is like laparoscopic surgery on machine parts," Schilling said.

"A welder in the oil industry can make $150,000 a year, and not many people know that," said Susan Lund of the McKinsey Global Institute. 

That's more than many graduates of top schools can hope to earn. And there's nothing glamorous about graduating school with debt and not being able to find employment. 

There are 600,000 of these types of jobs now — it's a growing industry — and there are more to come. ""Over 30 percent of Alcoa's workforce are eligible for retirement within the next 5 years," Natalie Schilling revealed, adding, "and I'm sure many other manufacturers in the U.S. are having the same experience.""

Two things need to happen to help bridge the skills gap. First, we need to overcome the cultural bias parents have against manufacturing jobs. That requires education and outreach, making sure people know that there are jobs that require — and teach real skills — where people can make the sort of lifelong careers that many Americans thought were lost.

The second is making sure that parents and students actually know what jobs are out there, and what sorts of education skills they need to get there. If there's one thing that can sell parents on the idea of manufacturing jobs, it's when government, businesses, and schools offer an attractive path that's less expensive than a 4 year college, and ends in an industry where there is, and will continue to be, demand for workers.

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