The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix our labor market

A job seeker completes an application at a career fair in Philadelphia held by the National Urban League as part of its annual conference in 2013. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

Greg Case is chief executive of Aon. Julie Sweet is chief executive of Accenture North America.

Behind the pages of statistics in the latest — and very robust — Labor Department jobs report is a data point that hints at both a stark reality and a once-in-a-generation opportunity: For the first time on record going back to 2000, the United States has more job openings — 7 million — than there are unemployed individuals to fill them.

This is the largest mismatch ever recorded, but the disconnect goes deeper than connecting employers and job seekers. We are experiencing a skills scarcity that is a defining feature of today’s economy and a major obstacle for many U.S. companies. The irony is that, while companies are scrambling for qualified employees, an estimated 3.5 million prime working-age Americans are not even searching for employment. This affects every industry, undermines the efficiency of our labor market and traps millions of workers in low-skill, low-wage occupations.

But for all the hand-wringing about the skills gap, it only tells part of the story. To understand our path forward, we need to look at our history.

The story of post-World War II America is of a generation of workers who either went to college through the GI Bill or instead learned on the job. What on-the-job learners missed in the classroom, they made up for with experience and, in doing so, fueled a period of transformational social mobility and economic growth that created the modern U.S. economy.

But fast forward two generations from this postwar period, and we today find ourselves again in need of a workforce-training approach that is attuned to the needs of our changing economy and can ready the next generation of U.S. talent.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce reports that our country lost — and has not replaced — an astonishing 5.5 million jobs requiring a high school degree or less in the Great Recession. At the same time, the number of jobs requiring at least a bachelor’s degree has grown by more than 8.4 million.

The problem is exacerbated as companies increasingly demand four-year degrees for roles traditionally filled by high school graduates or community college attendees — a phenomenon known as “degree inflation” — even as the cost of a four-year degree has more than doubled over the past three decades.

To bridge these gaps, it is past time for corporate America to embrace something trades have known for more than a century: the value of apprenticeships. By combining on-the-job training with supplementary education to prepare workers for jobs in emerging fields, apprenticeships help align the needs of employers with the qualifications of job seekers. Crucially, they can also lay a foundation for reskilling workers to fill jobs that have been — or will be — disrupted by technology.

In Chicago, our companies each partnered with City Colleges of Chicago to create apprenticeship programs that equip workers with skills necessary for jobs in professional services and technology. And as our ambitions went beyond our own businesses, we also founded the Chicago Apprentice Network, a consortium of companies dedicated to accelerating the creation of professional apprenticeships. Along with Zurich Insurance, we launched in 2017 with 75 positions, increased that number to 130 in 2018 and today have 20 employers with 400 apprentices. By 2020, we’re planning to create 1,000 new apprenticeship opportunities with our member organizations.

Make no mistake, this is not a social experiment — it’s a business strategy. Our companies expect to secure a competitive advantage by cultivating sources of talent long overlooked. But the impact goes beyond quarterly earnings to transform people’s lives for the better.

In 2016, Danica Lohja was working in retail when she saw the Accenture apprentice program posted on the career center bulletin board at Wright College. She is now a technology analyst in a dynamic career — one of the first of nearly 450 apprentices Accenture will have trained by the end of this year. Also in 2016, Victor Gutierrez left his job as a hotel bellman to pursue his dream of becoming an actuary. We celebrated with him when he completed Aon’s program, and he is on his way to becoming a qualified actuary.

To us, the “future of work” is now, and it looks bright because of apprenticeships. The programs can help diversify entire industries, build a more inclusive workforce and create pathways to employment for underrepresented communities.

But the skills gap is a national problem, and closing it will require nothing less than a national movement — one that can only be led by the private sector. Our aim is to enlist more companies to join us in closing the skills and training gaps, which is why we recently unveiled an apprenticeship playbook to help companies jump-start their own programs.

By rallying employers to invest in apprenticeships, we can unleash the untapped potential of millions. We can better equip our businesses to compete in an age of dynamic change. And we can prepare the United States’ workforce for well-paying jobs that power today’s economy — and tomorrow’s.

Read more:

Stuart E. Eizenstat and Robert I. Lerman: Apprenticeships could help U.S. workers gain a competitive edge

Catherine Rampell: The risks of a recession are rising — and Trump might be to blame

Robert J. Samuelson: The myth of stagnant incomes