Joe Six-Pack, Joe the Plumber, Joe Jobless

Last week's debate has everyone talking about whether plumbing and other skilled trades are actually recession-proof careers that can bring upwards of $250,000 a year.

The good part about this discussion is that it is drawing attention to the importance and opportunity of skilled professions.

Unfortunately, this discussion misses an important point.

There's an under-the-radar-crisis brewing across America, and neither of the candidates is talking about it.

The qualified labor that makes much of our nation move and advance is in decline.

For evidence of the consequences of this decline, we have to look no further than the nation's crumbling physical foundation -- unsafe roads and skies, collapsing bridges, breaking levies, understaffed emergency rooms.

As unemployment rises and more jobs across the technology, financial, retail and other sectors decline, an emphasis on helping more individuals move into skilled trades and rewarding those who are working in them will not only be good for Joe Six Pack and Joe Plumber, it will provide opportunity for the fastest growing group of Joes - Joe Jobless.

If the candidates want to discuss retraining the millions of Jobless Joes who are about to emerge, they can start with looking at 3 vital sectors of the economy and national infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, and energy.

The Federal Aviation Administration is so desperate for qualified air traffic controllers that it spent the first part of the summer trolling high schools and offering $100,000 bonuses to recruit potential employees. Every near-miss in our skies brings homes how crucial filling the air traffic controller gap really is.

A lack of skilled labor is not only evident to those stuck in a holding pattern around JFK. It is visible in other facets of the nation's infrastructure as well.

The United States needs 1 million new nurses over the next 8 years. That's a large target we will be hard-pressed to hit.

As 70+ million baby boomers hit retirement age, and with America's schools woefully short staffed of nurses, the nursing shortage will affect the health of both old and young alike.

The nursing problem is two-fold. We do not have enough new talent entering the field. Even more so, we may not have enough nursing instructors available to even attempt to train future practitioners.

This is bad news no matter which side of the universal healthcare debate you stand on.

Perhaps a top-of-mind concern at this time--energy supply and its costs--would shake the candidates awake?

As the importance of alternative energy sources skyrockets, our ability to make nuclear power plants safer or to explore new options is severely hampered. Nearly half of all nuclear engineers are approaching their 50s, and more than 1 in 4 are eligible for retirement.

Specialists who protect plant workers and communities from radiation exposure are in particularly short supply. Demand for these workers is currently 130% of supply. That's supposed to grow to 160% within 5 years and 200% within a decade.

Even our oil production efforts are threatened due to a dearth of qualified labor. Reports out of Texas say that existing employees are working more than 60-hour weeks to keep production up. Business leaders worry the current push is not sustainable.

Oil executives expect 50,000 jobs to become available in the next 5 years either through industry growth or the retirement of baby boomers. Community colleges and trade schools are trying to meet the need, but estimates say there are only about 5,000 students training for those jobs right now.

While these and other warning flags have gone up, our higher education system seems to be booming. The number of students going to college, the number of degrees awarded, the dollars invested by individuals, and investments by local, state and federal government are at historic highs.

While we are more active in higher education, we are clearly not pursuing the degrees and credentials that match our nation's needs.

In speeches over the summer both presidential candidates talked about the importance of improving our educational efforts help America be more competitive in a global economy. What was missing from their messaging is a definition of what that means.

The question is not only what skills are needed in a global economy. It is much more basic. What should our trade schools, community colleges and universities be doing to help fill essential jobs? And what are the candidates going to do to help these institutions turn things around for Joe Jobless?

In educating record numbers of students, our higher education system has shown it has tremendous capacity. Both candidates need a well-thought out plan for to harness this capacity.

Before the next levy breaks, the next child is denied access to medical care, or the next opportunity to pursue alternative energy is missed, we need to take action.

We can start by demanding to know what our candidates will do to better develop the nation's human capital.


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