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Examining America’s Skilled Labor Shortage

Ever since its inception, the American workforce has been held up by skilled labor. The skilled labor market encompasses most waged-based labor in the U.S., such as electricians, plumbers, and construction workers. These skilled laborers prop up the American economy through construction and maintenance of many things we enjoy in our modern society. Although skilled laborers play an integral role in our economy, the industry has had issues attracting new talent. Cultural stereotypes have given wage-based jobs a negative connotation within American society. Unclean, unsafe workspaces and reduced earning potential over time have made these jobs undesirable to the next generation of American workers seeking entry into the labor force. Our skilled labor force is aging at an alarming rate and thus far has not been able to successfully replace the previous generation. Consequently, the American government is facing a void in the labor force that should to be addressed in the near future. Through placing a greater emphasis on trade schools as alternatives for an expensive college education, the government could effectively reload the skilled labor force with recent high school graduates and nonviolent convicts seeking re-entry into the labor force. Age continues to be the most concerning problem within the labor force in the United States. According to a 2014 report published by EMSI, a labor market analytics firm, 53% of employees within the skilled labor force were over the age of 45. Furthermore, a 2015 study conducted by The Manufacturing Institute concluded that over 2.7 million laborers, about 22% of the skilled labor force, are going to retire within the next decade. Coupling this with industry growth, the report estimates that there will be 3 million unfilled positions within the labor force. Sadly, the report estimates that there are only 1 million people qualified to fill these positions, due to the sheer lack of graduates from trade schools across the country. This creates a void of 2 million unfilled jobs within the labor force. This could cause serious economic volatility if these jobs aren’t able to be filled in a relatively short amount of time.

The reasoning behind this void lies within the attitude of the American people. The emergence of new markets in technology and innovation have given recent graduates alternatives to the stereotypically unclean and dangerous workplaces involved with skilled labor. While trade schools used to be a popular choice for high school graduates, looking for an alternative to an expensive college education, its popularity has faded immensely throughout the 21st century. This is particularly prevalent in the erudite culture of the northeast, where a much greater emphasis is placed on getting a college degree than other career paths. Furthermore, reports that the number of skilled laborers over the age of 45 is disproportionally higher in the Northeast at 60%. Consequently, the void in the workforce is ultimately unlikely to be filled by the next generation of potential employees.

This leaves the federal government with a labor force problem that needs to be solved. They could fill the void by introducing legislation to attract migrant workers to come to the U.S, which is unlikely in the near future considering the recent protectionist policies implemented by the Trump administration. Another option is to invest in correctional reeducation for the American penitentiary system. This entails giving inmates access to trade schools, or vocational schools, designed to teach students the skills needed perform skilled labor. According to Leonard Spies Jr, Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council, 68% of former convicts are arrested for a new crime within three years of their original release. If the goal of the prison system is rehabilitation and reformation, its success rate does not meet any reliable standard. Investing in trade and vocational schooling for these convicts could fill the void within the workforce. A report published by the RAND corporation estimates that prisoners who receive such schooling have a 43% lower chance of returning to prison and a 13% higher chance of gaining long-term employment. Furthermore, direct costs to reeducate an inmate is around $2000, while the direct cost of re-incarceration is over $8000. Reeducating inmates in trade and vocational schools could not only be cost effective, but also reduces the risk of inmates returning. This could also fill the void within the labor force if executed properly. According to data collected by the Department of Justice, approximately 650,000 prisoners are released each year back into society. Correctional reeducation could give convicts the opportunity to overcome their past and succeed in the American labor force. Over the next decade, this influx of new labor, if trained properly, could successfully fill the void and give opportunities to those who may not get other opportunities elsewhere.

With changing times, the makeup of the American workforce is constantly evolving. Young Americans have traded in their hard hats for mouse pads. The younger generation’s interest in technology and development has created problems for those tasked with turning those ideas into a physical reality. The shortage in skilled laborers could have catastrophic effects on our nation’s economy and cripple the infrastructure of the workforce if not handled properly. In the meantime, the government could place a greater emphasis on trade schools to try and reinvigorate America’s young people in the importance of this labor. They could also invest in correctional education, which can potentially be a cost-effective way to refill the labor force and achieve its goals of reforming prisoners. If these ideas are implemented, the U.S. can outrun the hands of father time and reshape the backbone of the workforce for the foreseeable future.



Josephs, Mary. “U.S. Manufacturing Labor Shortage: How To Make Your Company A Happy Exception.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 15 Mar. 2017,

The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing: 2015 and Beyond Deloitte, 2015, The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing: 2015 and Beyond.

Wright, Joshua. “America's Skilled Trades Dilemma: Shortages Loom As Most-In-Demand Group Of Workers Ages.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 23 May 2014,

Spies, Louis. “Percent of Released Prisoners Returning to Incarceration.” Crime in America.Net, 27 Dec. 2017,

Davis, Lois, et al. Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education. 2013, RAND Corporation, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education.

USDOJ: FBCI: Prisoners and Prisoner Re-Entry,

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