Atlanta has a math problem.
There’s a massive shortage of workers in the metro Atlanta area with the specific skills employers need. Despite the opportunity, there aren’t enough students pursuing skills-based careers to become electricians, respiratory therapists, bookkeepers, IT support specialists and more.
These jobs are in-demand, pay above the median salary and don’t require a bachelor’s degree. These “middle-skill” jobs, which require training beyond a high school degree but less than a full degree, remain unfilled across the South, including metro Atlanta.
They are an opportunity hiding in plain sight.
The scope of the problem
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, there will be 250,000 job openings for skills-based jobs in Atlanta over the next five years.
These jobs go beyond the trades, though careers in construction and manufacturing certainly fit the bill. There are opportunities in almost every industry, from business, healthcare and information tech to energy and public service.
However, not a lot of students consider these paths unless they have a family member who works in the industry. There are misconceptions about what kind of money you can earn and “who” these jobs are for. These careers offer a solid starting salary and unlimited earning potential for candidates who are quick on their feet and excel at problem-solving.
Career counseling in middle and high school doesn’t help. It tends to focus on careers that require a bachelor’s degree. And while that path is a good option for many students, it doesn’t work for everyone.
Doing the math
Nationally, about 61% of high school graduates pursue traditional four-year degrees. Even that language offers a clue: We describe the pursuit of a four-year degree as “traditional.” But for the first 200 years of our country’s existence, the four-year degree pathway wasn’t the norm.
Meanwhile, there are training opportunities for skills-based jobs in metro Atlanta and beyond for a fraction of the price of a four-year degree.
There’s another factor to consider: Training for skills-based jobs typically takes 12 months to two years, so workers start earning a paycheck quickly. Apprenticeships and other earn-and-learn opportunities trim that wait time even further, allowing students to earn a paycheck while they gain skills and incur little to no debt.
A faster path to a good-paying job
Consider the training path of a diesel mechanic. On-the-job training such as an employer-sponsored apprenticeship is one option. Another pathway is training, including fast-track programs that are as short as 12 weeks, a 12-month certification or a two-year associate degree. A skilled diesel mechanic typically earns a median salary of $49,000 a year.
The story is similar for anyone who wants to become a dental hygienist. This career requires an associate degree. It can also be reached by becoming a dental assistant via a 12-month-or-less certificate program and then earning a hygienist education on the side. The median salary for a dental hygienist? $78,000.
The tide is turning
Members of Generation Z are challenging the status quo. They are more likely to consider trade school or skills-based training than previous generations, though lack of awareness remains a stumbling block.
At the same time, the federal government, many states and several Fortune 500 companies are doing away with four-year degree requirements for many jobs, especially those in information technology, business and many public service roles.
By focusing on the skills required to do a job, industries are discovering new pools of applicants and workers are discovering a whole new world of work options.
Oddly enough, that has always been how skills-based employers have functioned. Consider a licensed practical nurse or a machinist— both careers can be reached by learning a specific set of skills and proving that knowledge via an exam or certification.
It’s time to take a fresh look at skilled work opportunities.
This kind of thinking will help Atlanta and the nation fill the workforce gap.
When employers and students broaden their thinking to focus on skills — discovering them, earning them and valuing them — the landscape changes. And in Atlanta, that new landscape is full of opportunities for more people, workers and employers alike.