Travis Little graduated from the Colorado School of Mines in 2007 with a mechanical engineering degree and found quick employment in the booming oil industry. With the fracking revolution taking off, Little made good money working 80 to 100 hours a week at sites in Colorado, Utah, North Dakota and other states.
Today, Little is unemployed, and training to be a machinist at a community college in Longmont, Colo. That’s right – after graduating from college just a few years ago, he’s getting retrained for blue-collar work. Like many other energy-industry workers, Little lost his job in 2015, as oil prices plunged. Some of those jobs will come back eventually, but Little figures getting into manufacturing makes more sense. “It’s a great opportunity to get some retraining and find work in a more stable industry,” he says. “I’m hoping to combine my skills to become an exceptional engineer.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and other critics of free trade make it sound as if there’s no manufacturing left in the United States. “We’ve lost our jobs, we’ve lost our businesses,” Trump said during the third presidential debate. “We’re not making things anymore, relatively speaking. Our product is pouring in from China, pouring in from Vietnam, pouring in from all over the world.”
Trump is right about imports, but he’s wrong about American manufacturing. US production of manufactured goods has increased steadily for decades (with predictable disruptions during recessions), even as manufacturing employment has plunged. Companies are making more stuff with fewer workers, which points more to automation as the source of lost jobs than to trade deals or globalization.
Trump wants to “bring our jobs back” by reversing the global trends of the last 30 years and undoing trade deals that allow cheap imports to flow into the United States. But many economists argue with his logic. “Trump is misleading people who really think he’s going to bring back good jobs,” says Harry Holzer, a former chief economist for the Department of Labor who now teaches at Georgetown University. “That’s a pipe dream. The robots have eliminated a lot of them. Nobody’s bringing those jobs back unless they come back at really low wages.”
More training = more income
Little’s career suggests a better way to boost employment—steer more people into jobs that already exist, especially if they’re good-paying jobs where more training leads to more income. Little, 33, has three things going for him: He’s willing to learn new skills in order to get ahead. He’s able to go where the jobs are. And he’s not fixated on an outdated path to success that might have been valid years ago, but no longer is. “Parents are telling their kids the path to happiness is go and get a college degree and everything will be just fine,” he says. “It’s a complete lie.”
Maybe not a complete lie, but workers of all ages are beginning to understanding that education must be a constant—not a one-time thing—for people who want to get ahead. A recent study by the Pew Research Center and the Markle Foundation found that 87% of workers say continuous training is important or essential to career success. Strong majorities said career success depends on having skills such as knowledge of computers, training in math and science, or fluency in a foreign language. “The American people get it,” says Zoe Baird, CEO of the Markle Foundation. “The question is, what do you do about it.”
Little received a $5,000 grant to get started training as a machinist from a Colorado program called the Technology Employment in Colorado Partnership, or Tec-P, which is funded by a federal grant. Tec-P is meant to help people looking for work in advanced manufacturing in Colorado figure out what kinds of jobs are actually available and get the training needed to land them. The group says there are 94,000 people already working in advanced manufacturing or information technology in the state, with around 3,100 new openings per month. Average annual pay: $102,000.
What skills are needed?
Addressing the “skills gap” on a national scale would certainly help some struggling workers find decent-paying jobs, especially those without a college degree. The Labor Department says there are currently about 5.4 million jobs employers are unable to fill, which is close to the highest level in the 14 years the government has been collecting the data. But if you’re a worker looking for one of those jobs, there’s a catch: It’s not easy to figure out where the best jobs are, or what kind of training you ought to get. In hot new fields, such as 3-D printing, employers themselves may not even know what skills they’re looking for, exactly. “We need much more transparency around the skills that are needed,” says Baird. “People don’t even know what a job looks like when that job is new.”
Little, for instance, got into machining because he heard from industry connections that there’d probably be strong demand as baby boomers started to retire. (Labor Department projections suggest he’s right, while pointing out that “workers familiar with computer software applications and who can perform multiple tasks in a machine shop will have the best job opportunities.”) Markle has established an online resource called Skillful meant to identify what types of skills employers want and what types of training are required in growing fields such as IT, advanced manufacturing and healthcare. Under manufacturing, for instance, some of the best-paying jobs are logistics analyst (median salary: $74,000), engineering technician ($62,000) and electronics repairers ($55,000). Such jobs require specialized training, but not necessarily a college degree.
There have been other efforts to better match job seekers with available jobs. President Obama, for instance, has proposed federal funding for 100 technical job-training centers around the country, along with other enhanced training programs that would cost perhaps $5 billion per year. That’s cheap. A bigger Obama proposal, costing about $62 billion, would provide free tuition for students who get good grades and seek a two-year degree at a community college. Such programs would help more workers qualify for middle-skill jobs that pay fairly well. Congress hasn’t passed any of those proposals.
Better matching of workers with jobs could obviously help improve career and earning prospects for the 9.6 million Americans who are unemployed, underemployed or working part-time because they can’t find good full-time work. It would also help create new jobs and boost economic growth. “If more workers had these skills that companies need, companies would create more of those jobs,” says Holzer of Georgetown. When skilled workers are scarce, by contrast, companies find workarounds, by seeking automated solutions or moving the work to where the workers are.
Neither presidential candidate is talking much, if at all, about how to match displaced workers who want to get ahead with jobs that already exist or are coming soon. Hillary Clinton’s plan to create thousands of new infrastructure jobs would cost up to $300 billion, money that would have to come from tax hikes that seem improbable, especially if Republicans continue to control at least one chamber of Congress. Trump’s plan to tighten up trade deals in order to encourage more low-end manufacturing in the United States could trigger trade wars and even a recession. Better solutions exist, and they’d cost far less. The candidates only need to ask some of the people finding them.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.