Are teachers to blame for the worker shortage?

(This post originally appeared on The Hill)

I was talking to a friend of mine recently who owns a construction company near Nashville, Tenn. Not surprisingly, it’s been a busy couple of years, and he’s certainly not complaining. Also not surprisingly, when I asked him what his biggest challenge is, he immediately told me it was finding good people.  “I have a chronic worker shortage,” he said.

Most businesses, particularly small businesses, are faced with the same challenge. The economy’s strong, unemployment is as low as it’s been in 50 years and talent is scarce. Some blame big companies who offer better pay and benefits. Others blame the government’s immigration policies.

My friend? He blames teachers.

Why teachers? “It’s simple,” he told me. “They look down on my business.”

I’m sure that most teachers and school administrators would disagree with my friend. In fact, over the past few years, there’s been a significant uptick in the number of schools and governments partnering with industries and local businesses in an effort to help both students and employers fill open positions.

There are many examples of this. A school district in Pennsylvania recently established a new Business and Industry Advisory Council with the aim of “building connections” between students and local companies. In Indiana, a school district unveiled a new partnership with a publicly held aviation services company that provides “hands-on learning to give students skills and knowledge to help prepare them for the aviation workforce.” In Kansas, a local high school created an internship program with local businesses for its seniors to match them “with careers they are interested in pursuing” and to “show students the different career options available to them.”

This is all great stuff, and the teachers and administrators behind these programs should be applauded. But my friend — and many other business owners like him — are still not happy.

Why? They feel they’re being left out, even pushed to the side because teachers are unconsciously navigating their students away from their companies and toward getting a college degree so that they can one day be engineers, managers and executives at the big companies that are partnering with their schools.

You can’t blame them. But college isn’t for everyone. And, considering the costs, more and more people I know are seriously questioning the ROI of a university education in lieu of just going out and learning a good trade. The problem is that most teachers come from a different a place.

“Teachers are biased,” my friend told me. “They don’t view the jobs my company offers as ‘good’ jobs. They think their students can ‘do better’ by going to college instead of building a career with me. They want their kids to get a degree and then work for a big company, not mine.” Many small-business owners in construction and manufacturing that I know agree.

Are they right? Is there an unconscious bias among our high school teachers that’s working against small-business hiring?

There may be. My wife has been a teacher for almost 20 years. Her colleagues are — across the board — smart, college-educated, dedicated professionals. To teach today you need, at a minimum, a university degree. Some high schools even require a master’s degree. Which means that the entire population of educators at the typical high school came up through the university system.

That’s what they know. It’s part of their DNA. It’s worked for them, and they want their students to do the same.  They want their students to get college degrees and work for well-known companies or the government, become doctors and lawyers, educators and artists, because that’s what — to them — defines success.

Meanwhile, small companies like my friend’s suffer. He’s offering a well-paying job. He’s willing to train his new employees and teach them skills that forever will allow them to put food on the table for their families. But he’s not looking for lawyers and doctors. He’s looking for welders, carpenters, pipefitters and estimators.  He’s also looking for good people to evolve into project managers and help him grow his 50-person company, once they’ve learned the tools of the trade, of course.

My friend’s company is one of the countless companies that make up those 7.5 million unfilled jobs today. His company – like so many small businesses – can provide a fulfilling career for many students that want to learn a trade. The government spends money on training workers for them. High schools are creating partnership programs with them. But what’s being done to educate the educators?

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