Why It’s Time To Shift Our Perception of Skilled Work
When we look ahead to the future of work, it feels like the conversation is often steeped in doom and gloom:
“Everything is becoming automated!” “There’s too much competition!” “How will we know which jobs will exist in 10 years?”
“Am I going to get left behind? Do I need to go back to school? Do I need to learn how to…code??”
Here’s what’s clear: Yes, automation is coming! Yes, the world of work is evolving! But no matter how old you are, where your interests lie, or which industry you work in, these new changes will give rise to new opportunities.
So what if we stopped looking at skilled careers as “dirty jobs”? And stopped portraying skilled pathways as a “second-rate” alternative to four-year universities for our students and young adults?
What if, instead, we focused on how skilled pathways can lead learners into the kinds of careers that are revolutionizing our future, like urban farming and green energy? Or careers where you get to directly help people on a daily basis?
In our new documentary “Skill Shift,” we’re trying to do just that — and here’s why.
Why is it so important to give people more exposure to skilled work?
You’ve undoubtedly heard of “skills gaps” — where available jobs are left unfilled, often due to rapidly increasing demand, retiring workforces, and most of all, lower enrollment in skilled pathways, causing shrunken talent pipelines.
Worries about skills gaps often come up when we talk about hands-on jobs, like manufacturing and healthcare. But gaps are also quickly opening up in fields like technology and engineering. And these aren’t the kinds of fields where we can afford gaps! Healthcare is obviously essential, our infrastructure badly needs updating, and technology serves as the platform that enables these industries to run smoothly.
But where there are unfilled jobs, there are opportunities. And in these industries, the opportunities often come with good wages, and the chance to make important contributions to the world. Most importantly, these are opportunities for young adults and career seekers to find work that actually feels engaging, and reflects who they are and what interests them. (We all know a young adult who’d be fascinated by working in healthcare, or fulfilled by fixing things with their hands!)
So while we can’t slow down demand, or prevent people from retiring — nor would we want to! — we can help expose more young adults, students, and career seekers to more skilled pathways, in the hopes that some of these pathways will align with their interests, and lead them into fulfilling careers.
What kinds of pathways can lead to skilled jobs?
When we talk about skilled work, all we really mean are careers that require you to acquire new knowledge and training, beyond what you’d get in high school!
The skills you need could be technical skills, like knowing how to operate specific tools and equipment.
But they could also be what we like to call “human skills” — things like problem-solving, networking, or being creative. These human skills can help you navigate the world of work, and apply your technical skills in practical ways. While people don’t traditionally tie these kinds of skills into our view of “skilled work,” these are actually the skills that executives across America say they’re missing the most!
The good news is, amid the rising costs of four-year universities, skilled pathways offer an alternative option that can help people get the skills needed to succeed — at a more reasonable price tag, and often, over a shorter amount of time.
Skilled pathways can include anything from certifications, community college programs or degrees, vocational training, and apprenticeships. These pathways often blend learning and earning, helping learners get educated while actually getting paid, on-the-job experience.
Society often presents college as the “safe” option for students to take after high school. But the relative time and cost commitments of skilled pathways can actually offer a lower barrier of entry for young adults who don’t yet know what they want to do with their life, and want to explore and try new things. They can also offer some protection against the potential “risks” associated with four-year universities, such as taking on large amounts of debt with no guarantee of employment after school.
That’s why educators, parents, youth-serving organizations, and even employers need to work together to start showing young people that all kinds of options for education and training beyond high school are available to them — options that can lead them to better wages, and lower rates of unemployment.
Where can skilled jobs take you?
In our new documentary “Skill Shift,” we talked to CNC machinist Steve Seon, who struggled to find his path after leaving college — but took an immediate shine to manufacturing after enrolling in a vocational internship. And Andrea Crawford, who learned about wind energy in high school and decided to enter trade school to become a wind turbine technician.
In Detroit, we met Kyle Tripp, who used a vocational training program called Women Who Weld to launch herself directly into an apprenticeship as an ironworker. And we had an amazing Zoom call with Madison Bulard, who always knew she wanted to work in healthcare, and decided to pursue a certification in order to become a paramedic.
What we’re trying to illustrate with our documentary is, skilled jobs can take you all sorts of places — and there is no one starting point or end point when it comes to skilled pathways.
If you’re a young adult who’s wondering if college is still worth it, you may want to give skilled pathways some thought. Or, if you’re an established professional who wants to pivot into a more stable track, skilled pathways are certainly open to you, too!
No matter what you’re interested in, or what kinds of strengths you have, there could be a skilled pathway out there for you. But if you haven’t seen the breadth and diversity of what these pathways can look like, you might not be able to see how your interests and goals align! And that’s why it’s time to shine more light on these pathways — and shift the stories we tell about skilled work.