By Tom Still

An expert in invention and entrepreneurship who has forgotten more about both than most people know recently used this line in a room of economic development professionals: “Increasingly, there is no room in America for the unskilled.”

Before the politically correct among us rise up in solidarity for the right to remain unskilled, let’s do something refreshingly honest and concede he’s right.

The current job market certainly suggests so, given the stubborn national unemployment rate three years after the official end of the recession. And so have credible studies on the future of the American workforce, such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast and state-specific reports from the Georgetown University Center on the Economy and the Workforce.

Between 2008 and 2018, Georgetown researchers predicted, the need for workers with some kind of post-secondary training or education will grow by 139,000 jobs in Wisconsin. Jobs for high-school graduates and dropouts will grow by 52,000 jobs. By 2018, 61 percent of all jobs in Wisconsin will require some post-secondary training.

Meeting the need for skilled workers – from people with the right training for today’s high-tech manufacturing to people with advanced college degrees – has been addressed by three recent reports in Wisconsin. That kind of consensus around the size of the problem should mean solutions are achievable, even in a divided political era.

Unveiled a month ago was “The Road Ahead: Restoring Wisconsin’s Workforce Development.” Otherwise known as the Sullivan report, it was a volunteer effort headed by Tim Sullivan, the former Bucyrus Erie executive who was appointed by Gov. Scott Walker in February to take a hard look at state workforce gaps.

The report stressed that demographics alone are threatening the state’s long-term economic health. The number of senior citizens living in the state will nearly double between 2010 and 2040 (from 777,000 to 1.54 million), the report said, and its working-age population will grow by a miserly 0.4 percent (from 3.57 million to 3.58 million).

“Baby boomers are also aging out of the workforce, leaving gaps that cannot be met by our current projected population, or the education system in which they develop working skills,” it read.

The Sullivan report’s conclusions ranged from finding ways to encourage immigration of high-skilled, hard-to-find workers to better coordination of state workforce programs to establishing academic and career plans for all students. Importantly, it drilled into the economic, social and even health trap of dropping out of high school.

“Despite Wisconsin’s strong standing in high school graduation rankings, we cannot ignore the students we are failing,” the report said. It noted that a lack of “real-world learning opportunities” was cited by 81 percent of dropouts as a reason they left.

Another recent report stressed the importance of science, technology, engineering and math education. “Wisconsin STEM: Navigators to the future” was produced a group led by Bryan Albrecht, president of Gateway Technical College. Gateway has a successful history of meeting employer needs for skilled labor.

That report noted that so-called “STEM” occupations are predicted to grow by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018 and that STEM workers command higher wages, earning 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts. Over the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs in the United States was three times the rate of non-STEM jobs. Workers with STEM skills are also more likely to keep a job, contribute to a local economy and drive innovation, the report noted.

“STEM education is an imperative to secure our state’s viability in a competitive global economy,” said S. Mark Tyler, president of OEM Fabricators and a contributor to the report.

It established five markers to chart success: Eliminate barriers that prevent learners from exploring STEM careers; emphasize acquiring STEM knowledge and skills for all learners; increase public-private partnerships with a focus on STEM skills; establish a statewide awareness campaign for STEM careers; and invest in development for educators so they can better integrate STEM throughout the curriculum.

Also weighing in is the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which recently issued its “Agenda 2017” report. Among its recommendations are increasing Wisconsin’s graduation rate, doubling college and career readiness rates, and increasing the percentage of student scoring proficient in third-grade reading and eighth-grade mathematics.

One specific DPI recommendation: Expand high-school programs for “dual enrollment.” Those are programs that allow high school students to earn college credits and specific career skills through industry certifications and youth apprenticeships.

Indeed, there is precious little room in America for the unskilled. With the help of those who are committed to understanding the problem, perhaps Wisconsin can become a model for giving the unskilled hope and pathways to more rewarding, productive lives.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and Wisconsin Innovation Network.