Changing demographics and under-equipped workers in the United States are threats to economic growth that need to be addressed, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Robert Kaplan said. He addressed the issue in December during remarks at the Border Economic Development and Entrepreneurship Symposium in McAllen.
“The native-born workforce is going to continue to decline,” Kaplan said. “Immigrants and their children will make up more of the workforce. We need to get people in the workforce and get them productive.”
A 2017 study by the National Federation of Independent Business found that some 45 percent of U.S. businesses are experiencing difficulty finding qualified workers to fill jobs. Kaplan cited an aging U.S. population and a technology skills gap as two of the biggest issues behind the lag in a prepared workforce. “Half of small businesses have more jobs than they can find workers,” he said.
He also said employment in “middle skills jobs” demands more education than in the past due to rapid advances in technology, manufacturing and other fields. To keep pace with the demand for adequately skilled workers he called on local business leaders, community colleges and vocational schools to step up their game and do a better job helping close the skills gap.
“We have got to beef up middle skills training. Junior colleges, community colleges, they have to get better,” Kaplan said. “In Texas we are behind and we have got to catch up.”
But the problem is not confined to the Lone Star State. In a 2017 article published online by Bloomberg, Kaplan wrote “the skills gap in the U.S. is substantial. Chief executive officers report shortages of workers for middle-class-wage jobs such as nurses, construction workers, truck drivers, oilfield workers, automotive technicians, industrial technicians, heavy equipment operators, computer network support specialists, web developers and insurance specialists. If these types of jobs go unfilled, businesses will expand more slowly and U.S. growth will be impeded.”
While an increased number of public/private sector partnerships are developing skills-training programs to better equip workers, Kaplan believes there is a significant literacy problem in the country that could impede their success.
“I am alarmed by the trends I see in literacy,” he said during a roundtable discussion with journalists in McAllen. “The most important thing a community can do is support and promote literacy. It goes to the heart of everything.”
Kaplan said literacy is something that every business, large or small, can address in their communities. He urged business leaders to offer incentives for employees to volunteer with local literacy programs in schools and libraries. Early in his career, Kaplan said a company where he worked encouraged, even offered bonuses, to employees who participated in literacy programs. He said he continues to give his time to read with children and encourage literacy.
“Let’s just do this,” he said. “It doesn’t take but an hour a week to make a difference. This is something business leaders can do.”
According to the National Skills Coalition, middle-skills jobs make up the largest part of the labor market in the United States and in each of the 50 states. In Texas those jobs account for 56 percent of the labor market, but only 42 percent of the state’s workers are trained to the middle-skills level.
In order to counteract these trends, the United States must work to expand the workforce, in turn improving productivity, Kaplan said. “If these types of jobs go unfilled, businesses will expand more slowly and U.S. growth will be impeded,” he wrote in his Bloomberg article. “I believe our country must make a quantum leap forward if we are to boost U.S. growth.”