United States’ Skilled Technical Workforce Is Inadequate to Compete in Coming Decades; Actions Needed to Improve Education, Training, and Lifelong Learning of Workers

The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine

May 17, 2017


United States’ Skilled Technical Workforce Is Inadequate to Compete in Coming Decades; Actions Needed to Improve Education, Training, and Lifelong Learning of Workers

WASHINGTON — Policymakers, employers, and educational institutions should take steps to strengthen the nation’s skilled technical workforce, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Action is needed to support students in completing education and training programs and workers in upgrading their skills throughout their lives. Evidence suggests that as a nation, the United States is not adequately developing and sustaining a workforce with the skills needed to compete in the 21stcentury, the report says.

The report examines the supply of and demand for workers for skilled technical occupations: jobs that require a high level of knowledge in a technical field for entry, but not a bachelor’s degree. Skilled technical workers can be found in most occupational groups, from health care to construction to manufacturing. Examples of such jobs are medical laboratory technicians, installation and repair technicians, and computer support specialists. The term “middle skills” is often used to describe such occupations, but that term fails to capture the high value and dynamism of this segment of the workforce, the report says.

“If our nation does not adequately develop and sustain its skilled technical workforce, the consequences will be seen in lower productivity, fewer job opportunities, and a lower standard of living for Americans,” said Jeff Bingaman, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and former U.S. senator from New Mexico.

Although rigorous evidence is scarce on how well labor markets for skilled technical jobs are functioning on a national level, the U.S. is experiencing imbalances in worker supply and demand in certain occupations, industry sectors, and locations, the report says. Gaps are particularly evident in health care and manufacturing — industries that increasingly require proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills.

State and federal policymakers should support and enhance strategies that help students successfully complete their skilled technical training, the report says. Currently, students face major hurdles in starting and completing education and training for skilled technical jobs that go far beyond the rising cost of tuition; they include inadequate preparation in elementary and secondary education; lack of career guidance and information on the returns to investing in technical skills; and a lack of support services to address challenges faced by many students who juggle work, family, and school obligations.

Several strategies that link students to skilled educational and training opportunities show promise in improving completion rates, including providing career counseling and reliable and timely occupational information, as well as financial aid tied to academic benchmarks. Community colleges and other educational organizations will need incentives to create more flexible and integrated programs and to offer supportive services, the report says.

The secretaries of education and labor should offer incentives to stakeholders to reward program completion – for example, by implementing funding formulas tied to metrics focused on increasing rates of enrollment and completion for programs in high demand among local employers. They should also encourage educators to innovate in skilled technical education and training programs in order to improve the quality of programs and student services.  The Department of Education should collect and disseminate information on best practices at community colleges that facilitate completion of programs and the employment of graduates.

Actions are also needed to support lifelong learning for workers, the report says. For example, the Department of Education should consider ways to reform financial aid — currently limited to undergraduate students in for-credit programs — so that it includes students taking continuing education classes in certificate programs.

In addition, federal and state agencies should remove barriers that can keep skilled technical workers from moving to where jobs are – for example, by dropping licensing and certification requirements that are not related to public safety.  Agencies should also collect and disseminate more information on the labor market’s changing requirements for skilled technical workers to help reduce imbalances in labor markets and to align workforce development with advances in science and technology.

Congress should require the secretaries of education and labor to prepare annual reports on progress in implementing reforms and on the allocation of resources associated with implementation. Congress should also provide resources to support states in investigating the return on investment in education and training as part of their efforts to develop their local skilled technical workforce.

The report finds that the Department of Defense, one of the nation’s largest employers of these workers, could do a better job of designing and delivering training and support services to military personnel to improve their transition to the civilian workforce. They could also coordinate better with civilian policymakers, regulators, and educators to improve the transferability of military education, training, and certification. The Department of Defense should further integrate skills transition into military training rather than treating it as a separate component at the end of service members’ careers, the report recommends.

To raise awareness of the value of and demand for skilled technical workers, the report recommends that an alliance of stakeholders — industry, trade, academic, and civic associations and labor unions, in cooperation with the U.S. departments of Labor and Education — organize a nationwide public-private communication campaign. This campaign should be customized to recognize local variations in skilled technical workforce education, training, and labor market requirements.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Labor, grants from the Spencer Foundation, and additional support from the National Academy of Sciences W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fund.  The study was also funded in part from a grant from JPMorgan Chase & Co. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org/.  A committee roster follows.


Sara Frueh, Media Officer
Joshua Blatt, Media Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
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Policy and Global Affairs Division
Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy
Committee on the Study of Education, Training, and Certification Pathways to a Skilled Technical U.S. Workforce

Jeff Bingaman (Chair)
Former United States Senator (D-N.M.)
Santa Fe, N.M.

Thomas R. Bailey (Vice-chair)
Community College Research Center
Teachers College
Columbia University
New York City

Katharine G. Frase1 (Vice-chair)
Vice President (retired)
Education Business Development
Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

David S.C. Chu
Institute for Defense Analyses
Alexandria, Va.

Rita R. Colwell2
Distinguished University Professor
Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology
University of Maryland
College Park

Gary Hoachlander
ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career
Berkeley, Calif.

Harry J. Holzer
John LaFarge Jr. SJ Professor of Public Policy
McCourt School of Public Policy
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

Francine Lawrence
Executive Vice President (retired)
American Federation of Teachers
Washington, D.C.

Jennifer McNelly
180 Skills

Elizabeth Mertz
Associate Professor of Preventive and Restorative Dental Sciences
School of Dentistry
University of California
San Francisco

Paul Osterman
Nanyang Technological University Professor of Human Resources and Management
Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Annette Parker
South Central College
North Mankato, Minn.

Susan K. Sclafani
Vice President of Programs (retired)
Pearson Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Mark Tomkins
President and CEO
German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest Inc.


Sujai Shivakumar
Staff Officer

1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences