Joanne Webster: The Workforce Scarcity is Near

California continues its steady march toward a massive workforce shortage over the next decade, with the last of the Baby Boomers expected to retire soon. This will result in a plethora of job openings and not enough qualified candidates with essential professional and technical skills.

Not always do labor and business agree, but on the workforce demand, we are in the same boat. We all need to support a solution that will go far to ensure a workforce exists when business needs it, so that Californians who need good-paying jobs can support themselves and their families, and so that communities can thrive with robust economies.

The pending workforce deficiencies are a problem-in-common across nearly every sector. From health care to hospitality, California’s economy demands more highly trained workers than ever before. By 2030, close to 38% of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree and another third will require some postsecondary education short of a bachelor’s.

At the same time, the state’s largest and most highly educated generation, Baby Boomers, are reaching retirement age. From 2008 to 2018, more than 1.4 million Baby Boomers left the state’s workforce, 700,000 of whom hold bachelor’s degrees.

What does this Baby Boomer exodus mean?

Currently, the latest data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce indicates there are 8.5 million job openings in the U.S. but only 6.5 million unemployed workers. This means we have a surplus of jobs and not enough workers to fill them. Even if every unemployed person found employment, millions of positions would remain unfilled.

If California fails to educate and train enough people to replace retiring boomers and meet increasing demand, such a mismatch could slow economic growth and increase inequality, forcing more Californians into a lower tier of earning potential.

To prevent that kind of crisis, California needs to expand the number of students graduating from our community colleges and state universities. Those institutions have tremendous potential to train the people needed to fill the jobs of the future, particularly roles that require training for technical skills.

The state is moving in that direction, but there’s a big problem: the cost of college is beyond the reach of too many students and their families. And even those who are able to enroll in college face daunting challenges that force many to quit before they finish.

Students have many reasons for leaving college without completing their degree, but a primary one is as simple as dollars and cents. Recent polling shows the vast majority of individuals of working age without a degree cite cost related barriers as the primary reasons for not pursuing higher education. Too many simply cannot afford the cost of college including covering their basic needs for food and housing.

That’s why more financial aid, without the requirement to repay it, is so important. Students who receive sufficient aid can focus on their studies. They can also avoid taking on excessive debt.

State financial aid is an essential supplement to the rising costs of inflation on basic needs and the costs of education. But we need to simplify our system so that students and parents can easily and readily access the funds for which they qualify.

California can take a first step toward doing so by implementing Cal Grant reform — assuring students and families that there is aid waiting for them, specifically intended to provide opportunity they might otherwise never know.

As California leaders grapple with its budgetary outlook, it must consider strategic investments that will enable the state to bounce back stronger and pay significant dividends for our economic future. Estimates show that tens of thousands of students would benefit from the 2022 Cal Grant changes, fueling our workforce and stabilizing our economy. However, the necessary funding has yet to be realized.

Smart, future-focused investments help build more than just successful individuals — they build a thriving society. California’s higher education systems can be the greatest engine of economic mobility in the world, lifting people up and creating a more equitable distribution of income. But that will only happen if the students who are graduating from our high schools and entering college have the resources, they need to train them for the jobs available in our increasingly technological world.

Leaders must act decisively to invest in people, thereby fortifying our workforce for the challenges ahead. The well-being of individuals, families, communities, and the state economy hinges upon this critical action.