Reaching a Current and Future Skilled-Labor Talent Pool

With many lamenting the shrinking American middle class, it’s critical to address the realities of the 21st century workforce – which is the skills gap in our country’s labor force. A growing number of adult students are displaced from the workforce and a pipeline of new talent is needed for jobs in numerous blue-collar fields – and employers need to seriously address this issue.

In fact, many fast-growing industries require a “skills-based” education that falls somewhere between a high school diploma and bachelor’s degree. The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts that by 2020, the nation will need 1.3 million skilled workers in the collision, automotive, motorcycle and marine industries. Rather than four-year degrees, these workers are likely to pursue a combination of on-the-job training and a two-year degree or certificate. Recent research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows these credentials are a “gateway to gainful employment” and can enhance earning power more than a bachelor’s degree.


Overcoming Stereotypes

But there’s a stigma to overcome. Speaking on the Senate floor during a recent debate about higher education, Senator Marco Rubio put it well when he said, “Many of the higher paying jobs in the middle class today don’t require a four-year degree from a liberal arts college. We have created this idea, that unless you get a four-year degree or more, that you are somehow not successful.”

As president of the Orlando campus of Universal Technical Institute, which prepares students for service positions in the transportation and motorsports industries, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, now more than ever, skilled laborers are using both their hands and computer technologies.

I can tell you that unlike the stereotypical auto technicians in years past who relied solely on mechanical aptitude, our graduates have the math, computer and engineering skills necessary to work with the complex technology that powers today’s cars, motorcycles and boats. To prepare students for industry demands, we’ve built partnerships with manufacturers such as BMW of North America, LLC; Ford Motor Co.; Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC; Harley-Davidson Motor Co.; and Mercury Marine. These partnerships directly impact students’ employability — and employers ultimately benefit. Career and technical education options are pioneering new models for education that focus on STEM and workforce readiness.


LinkedIn for Skilled Labor

I was reminded of the importance of employers reaching a skilled labor pool after reading about WorkHands ( The website connects skilled trade workers across the U.S., and essentially serves as a LinkedIn for blue-collar workers. Some of the key features of this site emphasize finished products. So if you work on collision rebuilds for cars, you can showcase your work in the photo gallery. The site also highlights licenses and certifications that many workers in these trades are required to hold.

This type of innovative outreach to the skilled labor force is essential. Sites like WorkHands give a legitimate platform to showcase the hard work and commitment of our diverse labor force.


Looking to the Future

With so much debate about minimum and living wages, it’s absurd not to properly fund and support career technical education programs in high schools.

I urge business leaders and educators to accelerate efforts to partner and produce programs that are closely linked to industry job needs. If your business has a skilled worker shortage, collaborate with schools to help meet this demand. If your business is looking to hire skilled laborers – look beyond LinkedIn. Work with local career education institutions and other social media platforms. All educational leaders should embrace a more open view of vocational and career curricula, and recognize that these programs are key in fast-tracking graduates into vocations that have the widest skills gap.

Central Florida’s public schools, community colleges and universities have many strong vocational programs and they deserve our support and thanks. College preparatory classes are great, but we must not forget the importance of career prep courses that encompass all types of industries.


Steve McelfreshSteve McElfresh is president at the Orlando campus of Universal Technical Institute, the leading provider of post-secondary education for professional automotive, diesel, collision repair, motorcycle and marine technicians.