The former president of Beltone Hearing Aids used to say that kids aren’t born with the idea that wearing hearing aids is embarrassing or a sign of weakness; they’re taught it by society—us. This stigma keeps millions from utilizing state-of-the-art technology that would help connect them to the very society whose (mis)perceptions disconnect them.
Such is the power of stigma, and it’s the major offender in another societal injustice poised to cost us $1 trillion by 2030: the advanced manufacturing skills gap.
Students aren’t hearing the truth
When misguided assumptions are allowed to persist and worsen, people suffer as a result, because a certain audience never hears what they need to hear. In the case of skilled careers, decades-long stigmas against the manufacturing industry and “nontraditional” schooling practically ensure that students are gated from meaningful careers.
A survey we recently conducted amongst high school students illustrates what outdated perceptions still dominate young opinions of the industry: when asked what words they associate with manufacturing, they responded with phrases like “machines,” “dirty,” “blue-collar,” “hard work,” and “factories.” While these connotations might have held true in the early 1900s, the high-tech manufacturing industry has since progressed far past such a picture. As we explain in this article, the modern reality is that—“contrary to the … ‘dirty hands’ stigma”—technology drives the scene and employee livelihood comes first in today’s manufacturing.
Thanks in part to false industry beliefs, “6 out of 10 positions in manufacturing remain unfilled.” And these are financially attractive positions. The average wage is around $30 an hour, with a manager’s average annual salary stacking up to be $118,500. (Can you guess what 50% of surveyed Americans assumed it to be? $60,000—almost $60,000 short of the actual salary.)
It’s hard to fill a position that the workforce pipeline doesn’t know exists. This is because the stigma of “skilled” careers has consequently enforced a four-year college degree as the norm, and it’s limited the career choices suggested by high school guidance counselors. One student explains how they’re only presented with “a narrow range of career opportunities” in school, so “many students don’t know about other options.” Reinforcing this sentiment with statistics, the Leading2Lean Manufacturing Index shares that a staggering 75% of Americans surveyed in 2019 said they “never had a counselor, teacher, and mentor suggest … trade or vocational school as a means to a viable career.” The bottom line is this: students are being kept from successful, fulfilling careers because of outdated images, ignorant bias, and a lack of support.
The degree reset
There’s some good news, though. Gen Z is “more likely to consider working in manufacturing than prior generations.” Slowly, perceptions are changing. Even employers are reconsidering the value and necessity of a traditional degree. It’s evidence of the “Emerging Degree Reset,” a trend named by Professor Joseph Fuller of Harvard Business School in his recent study of the same title:
This shift in focus has the potential to better individuals and businesses alike, as a bachelor’s degree is not the best path for everyone—nor does it guarantee certain skills. Most students in the US would still tell you that a four-year degree is critical to their success even if they’ll be thousands of dollars in debt by the end of their schooling, but it’s just not true, and more and more Americans are realizing this.
Tesla, the world’s 6th most valuable company, finds it critical to evaluate future employees according to their experience, ability, and potential, not allowing a “degree from a prestigious university” do all the talking. Business Insider shares the hiring process of Tesla and what CEO Elon Musk values, saying, “Musk said he looked for ‘evidence of exceptional ability’ in an employee. ‘If there’s a track record of exceptional achievement, then it’s likely that that will continue into the future.’” When asked, “Do you still stand firmly on not requiring college degrees?” Musk answered with an emphatic “yes.”
A precedent from the president
The nation’s largest employer—the federal government—has also made a stand to help erase persistent stigmas: the Executive Order on Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates from June 26th 2020 supports the sentiment of “skills first” for the hiring of government positions in which a degree is not legally mandated. This order has directed the federal government to “replace outdated degree-based hiring with skills-based hiring,” as noted in the administration achievements archive here.
Policies and practices like this order will narrow (and have already narrowed) the skills gap in industries like advanced manufacturing.
It’s an important precedent for the government to set. The U.S. Department of Labor website promises that the federal government will “model effective employment policies and practices that advance America’s ideal of equal opportunity for all,” so if they are recruiting with a skills-first mindset alongside other leaders—like Tesla, Accenture, and IBM—more and more companies are sure to follow suit upon seeing the rise in qualified candidates. Essentially, when an employer is forced to consider what skills are truly necessary for a certain position rather than relying on a blanket degree requirement, their specified posting is sure to attract candidates who excel in the requested skillset, because—let’s face it—a college degree is not inherent proof of qualification.
Chauncy Lennon, the vice president for the future of learning and work at the Lumina Foundation, gives his thoughts in an EdSurge article examining industry reactions to the executive order. “Look,” he says, “a BA is a good thing to get, but we shouldn’t design a labor market that says it’s BA or bust. The labor market should allow different pathways. … What’s good about this kind of executive order, it’s helping to get rid of that distortion.”
Parents, teachers, industry leaders, the days of being tone deaf to the increasingly quantifiable pros of pursuing a skilled-based career isn’t sustainable for a lot of reasons. 1 trillion of them.
Are your company’s hiring practices shifting from degrees to skills? We’re all ears.