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From Blue Collar to Tech: The Biggest Labor Gaps

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Some say the U.S. labor gaps are a myth, others say they’re reaching epic proportions with a remarkable 6.7 million open positions waiting to be filled. What’s the truth?

It’s likely you’ve been struggling to fill positions, but maybe it’s not a labor shortage you’re up against. Perhaps it’s a mismatch of skills between what you need and what job seekers offer. In fact, Houston and Austin were recently named among the top 10 U.S. cities with the largest skills gaps. To get a better idea of where these skills gaps are, let’s take a look at two areas experiencing some of the biggest labor deficiencies: machine learning and manufacturing.


LinkedIn recently named Machine Learning Engineer among the country’s top emerging jobs with 12x the growth in job listings as the year before. Machine learning specialists and machine learning researchers are also listed as top emerging jobs. All-in-all, AI skills are among the fastest-growing skills on LinkedIn, with a global increase of 190% from 2015 to 2017 alone.

But with this growth comes a widening skills gap and a shortage of workers not just in the U.S., but worldwide. More than half of European business leaders interested in machine learning adoption have said that a skills shortage is slowing down their innovation and implementation in that area.

“Because ML rotates around gathering, collating, and interpreting data, it traverses numerous disciplines; math, statistics, and programming are all required. It’s difficult to write this in a job description let alone actually find it,” Information Age’s Andrew Ross explains about the labor shortage. “As you can imagine, ML is pretty complicated stuff, and it’s not something just any old computer engineer can grasp. ML requires cream of the crop computer scientists who can deal with large volumes of data at scale.”

Colleges and universities like the University of Illinois and Carnegie Mellon University are scrambling to meet demand by introducing and expanding undergraduate AI courses and degrees, but it’s not enough…yet. In studying job posting trends versus eligible professionals, Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor, predicts that a fix for the supply-demand mismatch is still five years out.


Blue-collar jobs across the board are suffering from labor shortages, due to both small communities with newly booming industrial activity and from skills gaps among the skilled labor workforce. Construction and oil and gas industries are predictably experiencing these pains but so is manufacturing. A 2018 report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute projects as many as 2.4 million unfilled manufacturing jobs nationwide by 2028. The negative impact on the U.S. economy of such a labor shortage is estimated to reach $2.5 trillion.

If you’re in manufacturing, you’ve known for years how some of the most significant problems are occurring. Baby boomers—the last generation to embrace blue-collar jobs—are retiring, while younger workers are choosing college-degreed white-collar careers instead of filling those roles. Some predicted AI and robotics would take jobs away from manufacturing workers, but Deloitte notes the opposite effect: More jobs are being created (and those jobs aren’t being filled). Positions in manufacturing relating to digital talent, skilled production, and operational managers may be three times as difficult to fill in the next three years (read the full report here).

In Texas, the manufacturing labor gaps are apparent as light manufacturing increases. Amazon’s San Marcos distribution center struggles with workforce shortages as it tries to grow from 3,000 to 4,200 workers. Manufacturing giants like Rockwell Automation based in Houston are investing in training and programs to groom a future workforce ready to embrace the industry once again. They’re doing this through traditional apprenticeships but also through manufacturing-focused STEM programs for children in elementary school, since it’s never too early to plant the seed.


With all the technical and trade skills that may be lacking right now, there’s one skill set that is missing in all sectors: soft skills. Soft skills are the interpersonal or “people” skills that can’t necessarily be taught. When you see a job candidate as unprofessional, or their interview answers seem to signal poor accountability or a lack of teamwork, those are signs that their soft skills aren’t up to par.

IT hiring managers admit they have the hardest time finding qualified candidates with skills in communication (23%), teamwork (22%), problem-solving (19%), critical observation (19%), and adaptability (16%).  We’ve seen those deficits for a variety of in-demand positions including administration staffing, accounting professionals, engineers, and more.

So here’s a challenge: What if you placed as much if not more emphasis on soft skills as you do on hard skills that can be taught? Pre-employment personality assessments and behavioral interviews can help. Then, consider the hard skills that the person might be able to acquire through training or certifications.

The savviest organizations are taking on the onus of training talent themselves, instilling a culture of continuous learning and training, says Jean-Marc Laouchez, president of the Korn Ferry Institute. “Constant learning—driven by both workers and organizations—will be central to the future of work, extending far beyond the traditional definition of learning and development,” he says.

Another benefit to upskilling great candidates and employees? Retention. Nearly 95% of employees say they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development.

“By investing in their employees’ education and skills training,” says Forbes Human Resource Council’s John Feldmann, “employers not only increase employees’ value to the company but also send them the message that they are worth the investment and have a place in the company’s future.”