Closing the skills gap in 2022: How is America doing?

Following the pandemic and the subsequent Great Resignation, the skills gap is as wide as it was last year (and only widening) as employers seek skill sets that much of the workforce lacks or will lack. If something doesn’t change in how we equip our next workforce generation with marketable skills in manufacturing and tech/IT careers, experts predict that by 2030 the talent shortage is expected to total a loss of $8.5 trillion in the US alone. Three industries, in particular, have seen tremendous growth in recent years and are facing high demand for workforce-ready talent: cybersecurity, aerospace, and the skilled trades. 

1. Cybersecurity

The past year has seen an alarming spike in cyberattacks, with ransomware attacks alone accounting for 623.3 million attacks worldwide, according to the widely referenced SonicWall yearly cyber threat report. As their headline for 2022’s report states, “Our future will increasingly belong to the proactive,” so cybersecurity is a field in which no one in the US can afford to fall behind; it’s not even enough to stay current anymore. 

Cybersecurity thought leader Chuck Brooks expresses in a January Forbes article that “cyber perils are the biggest concern for companies globally in 2022.” This pervasive concern means that cybersecurity professionals are in demand in every single industry across the nation. Unfortunately, though, the demand is not being met. A key witness to this cybersecurity skills gap around the country is the president and vice chairman for Microsoft, who recounts in his article from last fall, “As one person put it, ‘Every small business and start-up I know is complaining they can’t find people with cybersecurity skills.’” Although he moved from state to state, he says that the need to close the skills gap remained a constant talking point—and worry—for businesspeople.

The workforce shortage compounds the many challenges already faced in the rapidly changing landscape of cybersecurity. Microsoft’s vice president and lead of philanthropies, Kate Behncken, explains in a piece from this past March, “There simply aren’t enough people with the cybersecurity skills needed to fill open jobs.” In an effort to spread awareness of cybersecurity’s workforce needs, Microsoft recently launched a campaign in partnership with community colleges across the US, aiming to “help skill and recruit … 250,000 people by 2025, representing half of the country’s workforce shortage.”

The world needs cybersecurity professionals, and although steps are being taken to skill the newest generation of workers, America must make it a priority; “no one organization can close this gap alone,” the World Economic Forum warns, reminding us that the curbing of cyber threats “will require active and ongoing participation and partnership” from everyone. Cybersecurity still faces a critical skills gap whose worsening will deteriorate the strength of our country and compromise all of our futures. 2022 is the year to emphasize the daily impact of cyber threats and introduce cybersecurity opportunities to students so that they can enter the workforce with the skills required to defend the US.

2. Aerospace

The aerospace industry is another sector that is enjoying growth at the same time it faces a stagnation of trained employees. “A huge skills gap is emerging,” says Tech Times’s David Thompson, reporting on the 2022 Space Symposium, “now that the space industry is becoming a commercial endeavor, funding is increasing, and more startups are developing their own capabilities.” Part of the problem is that by the time traditional training methods have prepared a worker, the industry has already evolved. As Thompson points out, “the slow pace of academic teaching” and the current “time-consuming on-the-job training models” do not output “qualified space personnel fast enough, and the industry is suffering as a result.” 

The labor shortage comes at a time when aerospace is starting to soar again after the effects of the pandemic. Thompson relays, “Government organizations like the Department of Defense and NASA no longer have a monopoly on the stars.” This exciting development for the industry ensures even more growth to come—in both the “space” and the “aero” categorizations. Aerospace Manufacturing and Design says in their 2022 forecast that the demand for “business aircrafts” has quickly returned, “with utilization recently passing 2019 peak levels.” It is expected for air traffic to return to its 2019 peak early next year.

But as the aerospace industry recovers from the hits it took in 2020 and 2021, skilled professionals who possess crucial expertise are exiting the workforce and opening holes that employers struggle to fill fast enough. 

What’s the right direction for aerospace? Businesses are bridging the resulting gaps in two ways: through professional development efforts and digital solutions that “extend their teams and upskill current employees,” according to Eric Brothers, senior editor of Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. National organizations like Nova Space online and regional programs like Boeing’s DreamLearners in South Carolina hope to train and develop the next generation of aerospace experts who can close the skills gap.

3. Skilled Trades

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that the skilled trades will experience a continued rise in job openings through 2030. However, as with cybersecurity and aerospace, “there’s a massive shortage of qualified tradespeople,” as Forbes expresses in an article aiming to empower vocational educators and therefore close the skills gap. Steve Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, would agree that our current approach to education is part of the problem. “The federal government only spends $1 on career training for every $6 it puts into college prep,” he says on NPR. “This funding gap for career training is one of the main reasons so many contractors have a low opinion of the current pipeline for preparing new craft and construction professionals.” However, while building support within schools is certainly valuable, it’s not enough alone to bring new professionals to the trades. 

Why do trade careers struggle to recruit Gen Z? In a virtual interview with LCPTracker, Erin Volk of the AGC Construction Education Foundation identifies the problem: misperceptions. Volk is the Vice President, Workforce & Community Development lead, and Executive Director of AGC, so she is all too well familiar with the inaccurate portrayal of construction and other skilled trades. She explains that members of Gen Z are “digital natives” who, “throughout their whole lives, [have] been marketed to,” and the messages they’ve heard from the media are that “construction is not a lucrative career” and “you have to go to college to be successful.” In fact, data collected by Stanley Black & Decker last fall reveals four main contributors to the skills gap in trade careers: the “misunderstanding of long-term financial security, incorrect knowledge of required skills, lack of exposure to those in trade skills careers, [and] observation of trades as a ‘male-dominated’ industry.” Stanley Black & Decker and Volk have witnessed this lacking education about the trades at work (or, rather, not at work) and are doing something about it.

Enter Build California, the project that Volk describes as “designed to inspire, engage, and activate the next generation of [the] construction workforce.” Build California seeks to educate Californians of all ages about the state’s construction industry, including both the short- and the long-term benefits of such a career. According to the Build California website, the initiative provides “sustainable and stable pathway[s] for millions of residents across the Golden State.” 

Volk, her team, and industry leaders like her battle every day against the stigmas that keep people from construction and other skilled trades, working to widen access to reliable information about construction and economic advancement and—ultimately—increase the numbers of professionals in the field. “It’s difficult to do,” Volk says, “because there’s decades of [misperceptions] to undo,” but it’s a struggle whose overcoming will benefit us all. 

Looking ahead

Each of the above industries boasts well-paying careers and stable futures, but it’s clear that the skills and interests of the available workforce are not aligned with industry needs. For the term ‘skills gap’ to be removed from workforce development vernacular once and for all, industry, regions and departments of education need to work together on how to communicate with, prepare and engage the next workforce generation…quickly.

What are your best practices in closing the skill gap in your industry?

A Legacy of Manufacturing Careers

By Tina Zwolinski, skillsgapp CEO and Co-Founder

When I was younger, I didn’t realize that what my dad did for a living was called aerospace or manufacturing. These terms weren’t even in my vernacular. I just knew that he lived and breathed all things jet and rocket engines and that we did too. Our vacations revolved around his passion. Plane flights turned into educational moments about the jets and their engines; he brought us along on work trips to Florida and California; we visited NASA to celebrate launches, and were frequently in attendance at the Pratt & Whitney Airshows in East Hartford Connecticut.

“I was a part of the aerospace industry transitioning from piston engines to jet engines. I love seeing the innovation happening today with jet engines and space travel. The speed of change is remarkable.”

– James Woodward

My father worked at Pratt & Whitney for his entire career and made a great living, which he’s still benefiting from today at eighty-four. He worked his way up from design and testing to management. Throughout his tenure, he taught me the importance of a strong work ethic, and to respect and care about those you work with. He would come to my school every year with a small model engine and share career opportunities within aerospace and what students should focus on in school to prepare for a career in “jet or rocket engines.” All of my science projects were centered around flight and engines, admittedly with a lot of help from my dad.

Unlike many of my peers, I spent a summer working at Pratt & Whitney as a teenager. It paid better than retail and lit a passion in me for manufacturing. I remember thinking people were paid well, had great benefits, and took pride in their work as a team. That’s what stuck with me. Manufacturing looked very different back in the late eighties than it does today, and we are working hard now to reverse the stigmas of dirty, hot plants that have recurring layoffs. 

“Still today, whenever I get on a plane I look to see what company manufactured the jet and engine on the plane. I live stream rocket launches and landings amazed at the speed of innovation, just like my dad.”

– Tina Zwolinski

Manufacturing: A Family Affair

My uncle worked in automotive manufacturing at Stanadyne for 15 years, and then with Hamilton Standard (now Collins Aerospace) in aerospace for the rest of his career. Through both, he experienced the introduction of robots into manufacturing, and like my dad, did well and enjoyed his work. He was also able to travel to train teams, and I got a front-row seat to his incredible opportunities to see the world through his work.

“A career in manufacturing provided me with an excellent quality of life, the opportunity to see the world, and life-long friendships from the years of working together.”

– James McKeough

My nephew is the next generation in our family of manufacturing disciples, following in the aerospace footsteps of his grandfather. He’s a great example of a Gen Zer who wanted to have more hands-on experience, versus spending time in a classroom. Despite a scholarship to a 4-year university in engineering, he decided to take another pathway through the technical college system where he studied aircraft maintenance and was offered a position with Lockheed Martin. He recently received his airframe license and is looking forward to a life-long career in the aerospace industry.

“I’m enjoying putting the skills I’m passionate about to work at Lockheed Martin. There are career growth opportunities and the company is very supportive of my continued learning and growth interests within the company.”

-Joshua Wallace

Carrying the Manufacturing Torch

I started my advertising career at the Greenville SC Chamber of Commerce right around the time BMW was considering coming to the Upstate. I could feel the manufacturing spark reigniting, knowing what a manufacturing plant like theirs could do for the state of South Carolina.

The next 25 years were spent running ZWO, a branding and marketing firm focused on economic and workforce development with an emphasis on industry sector recruitment and expansion support, as well as youth consumer brand and lifestyle marketing, including stigma reversal. 

Year after year we heard the same thing from both industry and states: “We need to find skilled workers to fill all the open positions”. Websites, videos, job fairs, and print materials were all being done to reach the potential workforce, but those tools and tactics weren’t getting the job done, and so the conversation ensued. 

Along came Generation Z, a generation born with a mobile phone in hand, quick to teach themselves about anything and everything. This was the catalyst that ignited the launch of skillsgapp. We began asking ourselves one question: “What if we could go directly to the students – wherever they are – and engage with them on their phones about these careers and corresponding pathways?”  They then could advocate for their own future based on their interests and learnings, not the stigmas of the generations before them. Industry could in turn recruit from a more engaged, qualified pipeline for years to come, void of the constrictive layers of traditional outreach, in school and out, especially in under-resourced communities. 

“By the time Gen Z learns about skills-based careers, many have chosen another path. Preparing and making them aware of these opportunities earlier isn’t just the key to our future, but theirs, too.”

Tina Zwolinski, Founder and CEO, skillsgapp

We dug in with passion and researched, conducted focus groups, studied trends, and decided on a skills development game model that makes learning about work fun, rewarding, and scalable. With the opportunity for credentialing a win for all.

Looking ahead, it’s game on to reach as many students as possible to create awareness and opportunity around meaningful, well-paying manufacturing jobs in automotive, aerospace, life sciences, and even the skilled trades and cybersecurity/IT fields. 

Do you have family members following the generation before into manufacturing careers? Please share in the comments below!