• Mr. John Ratzenberger, Actor, Director, Founder of the American Museum of Manufacturing
• Mr. Rory DeJohn, Senior Vice President, Turner Construction Company
• Colonel Michael Cartney (USAF, retired), President, Lake Area Technical Institute
• Mr. Jay Neely, Vice President of Law and Public Affairs, Gulfstream Aerospace
• Ms. Judith Marks, Chief Executive Officer, Siemens USA
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Full committee hearing
This hearing will take place in Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room G50. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
Chairman John Thune
Good morning. We are here today to discuss a very important issue for the U.S. economy – the technical skills gap among our workforce.
According to multiple surveys, employers are actively looking for skilled workers to fill available, well-paying jobs and they simply can’t find them. As we will hear in detail from our witnesses today, there are numerous reasons for this, including a decline of technical education programs in public high schools; an increase in the number of baby boomers approaching retirement; a negative perception of the manufacturing sector among some potential employees, especially among those in younger generations; and an increased emphasis on four-year college enrollment to the possible detriment of more technical training.
These factors, and others, are creating a skills gap that is most pronounced in industries requiring a labor force with technical skills, like manufacturing, construction, and the energy sector.
In South Dakota, having a skill and being able to work with your hands is common for most folks. But that mentality was formed from necessity – in rural America, oftentimes you need to be able to fix things for yourself when they break. Over time, this need has led to a natural respect for the men and women who focus their lives on those trades. In order for our country to remain competitive, we need to promote this perspective and work together to highlight the importance of the skilled trades to the very foundation and strength of our economy.
This hearing is intended to explore the causes of the skills gap, but just as importantly, highlight efforts by advocates and industry to address it. John Ratzenberger has put smiles on the faces of children and adults alike from his work on Cheers and numerous animated Disney Pixar movies. But today, he is here because of his passionate belief that America’s greatness is connected to our ability to manufacture and his recognition that we need skilled workers.
Getting young people interested in working with their hands, and familiar with tools from a young age, is an important first step. A focus on technical education is part of the solution. It is no surprise to me that a South Dakota institute, the Lake Area Technical Institute, is leading the pack in training students to fill these skilled jobs.
Lake Area Tech is the winner of the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence – the nation’s foremost recognition of high achievement and improvement in America’s community colleges. An overwhelming 99 percent of Lake Area Tech’s graduates are employed after graduation. And, once they enter the workforce, these graduates earn an average of 27 percent more than other new hires in the region. It is wonderful to see the work that Lake Area Tech and other community colleges and career and technical education programs are doing to train students for jobs that are available and lucrative. I look forward to hearing more about Lake Area Tech’s programs in Colonel Cartney’s testimony.
In addition to education pathways, U.S. employers are leading the charge in addressing this issue. Many companies have started training programs or fostered partnerships with local community colleges to try to improve their workforce pipeline and mitigate the impact of the skills gap.
This engagement is not limited to college partnerships. Many companies looking for future employees are finding innovative ways to engage K-12 students in STEM education. I look forward to hearing from the panel on what is being done on this front, what types of programs or models are working well, and what challenges remain.
Finally, it should be noted that the federal government partners with state and local communities and organizations to fund education, apprenticeship, workforce, and manufacturing-related programs, including at the Department of Commerce and the Federal Aviation Administration. The issues we will explore today affect industries and agencies that span the Committee’s broad jurisdiction.
Getting Americans back to work, and in good paying jobs, is a key priority of the Committee, and will remain an area of focus as we approach the legislative agenda ahead. I thank the witnesses for taking part in that effort today, and I look forward to hearing your testimony.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
During the height of the Great Recession, when unemployment was hovering around 10 percent, we noticed something surprising: the unemployment rate for recently separated veterans was consistently higher than the national average. This was unexpected, because folks coming out of the military are highly trained for technical jobs – air traffic controllers, combat medics, and airplane mechanics. And, technically trained professionals were in high demand in the civilian world.
What was happening was that these veterans were receiving world-class training, but not the right civilian certification or credential to be eligible for the same job once they left the military. There was a small gap in their education.
So, we fixed it. I introduced legislation, the Veterans Skills to Jobs Act, and the Department of Defense now helps service members get these credentials and certifications so they are qualified to get a job as soon as they leave the military.
An abundance of technical jobs presents a big opportunity for civilians as well, but the skills gap for them is even wider. Companies today are having a hard time finding qualified job applicants for technical positions. As many as 13 million U.S. jobs require technical or STEM skills, but not a 4-year college degree.
On one hand, more Americans than ever are attending college – many graduating with crippling student loans. On the other, companies are desperate to fill well-paying technical jobs that require some training, but less than a bachelor’s degree. It is clear there is a mismatch between our education system and industry’s workforce needs.
This skills gap in the workforce affects the bottom line of big and small companies across the country. On the Space Coast of Florida, small and large companies alike are working with community colleges to build a pipeline of technically trained employees so workers can hit the ground running on day one. These positions aren’t what we normally think of as blue-collar - these folks are helping to build and launch NASA’s space launch system – the largest rocket ever built. Siemens, who we will hear from today, has similarly implemented apprenticeship programs across the country for machinists, welders, and other skilled positions.
Aggravating this problem is a stigma about blue-collar jobs. High school students choosing between university or technical training need to know that many manufacturing workers are well paid and highly sought after. We have to do a better job of changing attitudes when it comes to the perception of technical education and manufacturing jobs.
The bottom line here is that we - educators, industry and all levels of government – must do everything we can to better prepare workers for the job market of today and tomorrow. Failure is not an option. We have to expand job opportunities for American workers and make sure our nation has the skilled labor it needs to remain competitive in the global economy.
Our witnesses today are leaders in industry and workforce training, and I look forward to hearing their testimony.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Rory DeJohnSenior Vice PresidentTurner Construction Company
Colonel Michael Cartney (USAF, retired)PresidentLake Area Technical InstituteColonel Michael Cartney Testimony.pdf (984.46 KB)
Mr. Jay NeelyVice President of Law and Public AffairsGulfstream Aerospace
Ms. Judith MarksChief Executive OfficerSiemens USA
Mr. John RatzenbergerActor, Director, Founder of the American Museum of Manufacturing