The United States unemployment rate has been slowly but continually dropping since peaking at 10 percent in October 2009. Today it stands at 5.5 percent, with 126,000 jobs added last month alone. In fact, more jobs were created in 2014 than in any year since 1999. The flip side is that 9 million workers remain without a job, a number that might be much lower if those Americans had the necessary skills that many companies currently seek. In fact, 5 million jobs are unfilled today because skilled workers are not available to fill them. That’s a challenge U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker is tackling head-on. “One of the things that is really important for us to be doing is making sure that we’re training people for the jobs that exist today,” she told Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric when the pair visited a school in New York that focuses on job-driven training skills in computer programming.
According to a 2012 McKinsey & Company report, 45 percent of U.S. employers say that a skills shortage is a leading reason for entry-level vacancies. This problem is commonly referred to as the “skills gap.” “Since I’ve been in this job, I’ve probably met with 1,500 employers. All of them tell me they have challenges finding the skilled labor they need,” says Pritzker. “We need to do a better job of letting young people, letting families know what are the careers of the future. What are the skills that are needed? And then where do you go to get those skills?”
Pushing the need for job-driven training programs is nothing new to Pritzker. Before she became secretary of commerce in 2013, Pritzker founded Skills for America’s Future, a national initiative to close the skills gap. It works directly with employers to develop ways to better equip workers with the skills they need for in-demand jobs. In 2012, she also helped launch Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, the first city model of Skills for America’s Future.
Since taking office, Pritzker has made job-driven training a top priority for the Department of Commerce. “The reason is simple: For our economy to grow and our families to thrive, we need to ensure that more workers are better prepared and better equipped to meet the demands of business in the 21st century.”
Pritzker says the problem is not lack of jobs. “Since 2009, we’ve created 877,000 manufacturing jobs in this country. And these are not the manufacturing jobs of 25 years ago. These are technical jobs; they often require some kind of computer programming, computer literacy. And these are jobs that have great longevity and are very much associated with innovation of what’s going on in our economy.” Apprenticeships have declined by 40 percent in the last 10 years, and the Obama administration is encouraging companies to do more in this area. “CVS, for example, has just agreed to double the number of apprenticeships in their pharmacy and their medical units — from, I think, 1,500 to 3,000. Campbell’s Soup is doing an apprenticeship program for their production technicians,” says Pritzker. “They know it creates a loyal employee; they know it creates a successful employee.”
The Flatiron School, founded in 2012, teaches anyone who is interested how to code. Sophie, one of the students, has a degree in history from Barnard College. “I looked for a job for a long time. I eventually found work as a nanny … but it’s not what I went to a four-year university for.” Sophie is now training to be a computer programmer and hopes her new skills will make her more marketable when she looks for a job.
“It’s really important you build a baseline of skills on which you can build the rest of your career. And I think the other thing to keep in mind is it’s no longer that you’re pigeonholed as narrowly as perhaps a generation or two ago,” says Pritzker. “There’s the opportunity to reskill throughout life, through online learning, through various courses offered at universities, through graduate programs. So what you want to do is make sure that your baseline is really strong of skills so that you can build upon that throughout life. Whether that’s a technical baseline, whether that’s a liberal-arts baseline, you want to make sure that you put that in place. And then be a lifelong learner.”
Watch Katie’s conversation with Secretary Penny Pritzker and students of the Flatiron School to learn more about the “skills gap.”