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Reimagining vocational training

Posted by Chad O'Connor  May 20, 2013 11:00 AM

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A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute has generated much debate among recruiters, labor analysts, and even jobseekers themselves regarding the perceived STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills shortage that I wrote about several months ago. This article by Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic summarizes the findings, mainly that there is no shortage of skilled U.S. STEM workers and that claims of a talent shortage are greatly exaggerated.

When I first read it, it struck me as impossible. My company, Bullhorn, hires 50 STEM grads every year and the competition for candidates is always fierce. Even if there isn’t really a shortage of skilled American STEM workers, there’s certainly a perceived shortage regardless of what the EPI says. We interviewed 1,848 North American recruiters late last year and the overwhelming consensus was that there is a shortage of skilled workers in IT – at least among the people who are responsible for placing candidates in jobs.

So where’s the disconnect?

There are two types of STEM job openings: generalist jobs for graduates of the country’s top schools and specialist jobs. Every year, high-profile companies like Goldman Sachs, Accenture, Google, Biogen Idec and VC-backed startups attract and recruit the country’s smartest STEM graduates. These jobs are highly desirable. They offer extremely lucrative compensation, an exciting career path, and prestige. They accept a mere one tenth of one percent of applicants, so if you didn’t go to a top 40 school, you need not apply.

Meanwhile, the specialist jobs will be awarded to any candidate who has demonstrable skill in an area that’s required for business success. For instance, mobile application developers: every Fortune 500 company is looking for mobile app developers. If you have a pulse and you can build iPhone or Android apps, you can get a high-paying job. The same thing goes for MRI technicians and tax and compliance experts. You don’t need a four-year degree to acquire a skill that puts you in demand.

The specialist jobs are the problem. Most colleges are giving their STEM students a general education. They neither have the pedigree for the high profile generalist jobs nor the skills required to land the specialist jobs. Hence, most are moving back in with their parents while corporations wail about the war for talent. We’ve seen this time and time again in our data. The 200,000 recruiters who use our software post thousands of specialist jobs every day that remain unfilled for months. The bottom line is that all of these findings support the need for better-quality, more specialized training.

The solution is vocational schools.

Not only are the country’s four-year colleges and universities astronomically expensive, they are failing to produce employable graduates. The country needs armies of workers with specialized STEM skills that address specific business needs. The education system needs an overhaul. Many of these skills can be taught in as little as 12 months, at a mere fraction of the cost of a 4-year degree. Traditionally, this is what vocational schools offered. If we want to get the economy going, Americans have to set aside their hang-ups and preconceptions about vocational training because it’s the country’s best and fastest bet for higher employment rates and economic growth.

There’s an extraordinary business opportunity for those who can figure out a vocational model that can deliver students with the skills America’s businesses need. A number of organizations are already capitalizing on this opportunity and venture capital is flowing fast and furious into education startups. Granted, none of these startups use the “vocational” moniker, but services like Codeacademy, the Flatiron School, and other online academies offering training courses in specific STEM skills are exactly that – vocational schools. These programs have demonstrated that when popular startups and well-known thought leaders endorse courses, they sell out. There are no clear winners among these online schools yet, and there’s no indication that the best solution needs to be an online-only experience, but the demand is very real and the opportunity is tremendous.

Other countries, such as Germany, have embraced the vocational training model with huge success. Germany’s dual education system pairs vocational education with structured apprenticeships at companies, ensuring that students acquire practical skills that address real business needs. German students can choose from hundreds of technical apprenticeships. As a result, Germany’s unemployment rate for young people is among the lowest in Europe.

After it’s been properly rebranded, vocational training will simultaneously change the economics around technology labor and revitalize the American economy. Inexpensive and accessible training will yield a desperately needed supply of skilled labor to fuel the development of new products and services. Corporations will have access to the talent they need at reasonable wages. And, these workers, unburdened by massive student loans, will have more of their paychecks to pump back into the economy.

Art Papas is the founder and CEO of Bullhorn, the global leader in recruiting software. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Staffing Association, Portfolio Science Inc. and the HR.COM Online Staffing and Sourcing Advisory Board.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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