Closing the skills gap

Published May 2, 2019

By Tom Campbell

Any well-run company listens closely to their customers and Mooresville based Lowe’s is a good example of a home-grown business that listens. While many of us do-it-yourselfers frequent their stores, their largest customer base is professional contractors. Mike Mitchell, Lowe’s skilled trade director, says“When we start talking to (pro customers) about how we can help them run their small business, labor shortage comes up almost every time.” 

Simply put, contractors are turning away business, taking too long to complete existing jobs or even losing money on jobs because they can’t find enough skilled workers. The skills gap is real. Nationally, three million jobs could go unfilled by 2028 because of labor shortages. 

Lowe’s wanted to know why young people aren’t choosing trade professions as a career choice, so they formed a consortium of about 60 organizations to examine the problem and come up with solutions toward filling job shortages. This unique undertaking, dubbed Generation T, includes a diverse range of groups from appliance manufacturers, like Bosch, to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. 

 One big stumbling block is that many young people lack awareness about what kind of future they might have working in trade professions and how much they might earn, so this consortium is going into schools to inform students about career pathways. Skilled carpenters, plumbers, HVAC technicians and other tradesmen can earn six figure salaries. The project is also providing tools, appliances and equipment for experiential study in high schools.  

 But to fill the skills gap additional training or certification beyond high school is required. A recent report from The John Belk Foundation and Carolina Demography talks about our “leaky” pipeline in providing skilled workers. It says that 67 percent of all jobs in our state next year will require some level of training or certification beyond high school. Currently, only 47 percent of our 5.3 million working adults meet those requirements. 

The skills gap is further complicated when you understand that our working age population is shrinking, due to the retirements of baby boomers. Older workers remaining in the workplace need new training if they are to continue to earn living wages.  

Gen T has great potential. Not only can it be expanded laterally, meaning across the state, but can be replicated vertically into other sectors where there are rapidly expanding job needs. The 10 fastest growing jobs in North Carolina right now are statistician, credit counselor, nurse practitioner, operations analyst, occupational therapy assistant, physician assistant, home health aide, diagnostic medical sonographer and physical therapy aide. 

Lowe’s Generation T was designed specifically for the construction industry, but it is the model or template that demonstrates how the skills gap can be addressed in other job sectors. It clearly points out the importance of bringing together all stakeholders, from trade and professional groups, equipment and other manufacturers, educators, employers and even end users to find solutions.

Continued economic growth and prosperity demands we meet these needs. Our employers need workers if they are to remain vibrant and our people need jobs. North Carolina has the expertise and resources to meet this great challenge. Let’s close the gap.