Mary Walshok
Rethinking America’s talent crisis
TEDxSanDiego 2017

I am so happy to be following Ben the physicist. I spend my days working with brilliant young minds like Ben’s, thinking about the future, and where science and technology is going. And then I go home, and my refrigerator is broken down. Three days later, my toilet will flush, and then my transmission tanks and I have to Uber to work.

How many people in this audience have those kinds of problems. Probably in the last couple of weeks half of this audience have had the need for a skilled trades person, or crafts person, or somebody who can solve a real problem, and you can’t find them, right? And if you do find them, you’ll pay them anything to solve your problem, and I do, let me tell you.

Now I think this is a problem in America, that we have a challenge finding plumbers, electricians, welders, auto mechanics, and increasingly people who are following what’s happening in the American economy are identifying this disconnect. We so have undervalued skilled labor, and I would argue, and I’m in a university person, overvalued academic knowledge, that we have a problem with both inclusiveness in the American economy, but I would argue as well, competitiveness for the American economy.

Now how did this happen.?Why do we so undervalue these skills? When I was a girl, you had to take wood shop, or metal shop, or auto shop, even if you were going to college, in the high schools. The community colleges were awash in applied learning opportunities and apprenticeship programs, and companies took interns, and people learned to do things with their hands, as well as with their heads. We’ve got to, I in my opinion, close this gap that has grown in my generation.

This dichotomy between people who think and people who do, brain versus brawn, blue collar vs. white collar. That’s one I really hate. You know nowadays who wears blue denim shirts. It’s not farmers, ranchers and factory workers, it’s guys in advertising in Armani jackets.

Let’s talk about t-shirts, right? When I was a girl it was an unskilled laborer or gas station attendant who wore a t-shirt. But now Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, they made t-shirts de rigueur in the entrepreneurial community. And you know, even white collar jobs. Now when I was a girl the idea of a white collar job is you put on your white shirt, your tie, you go to the office, you work in insurance, you work in banking, you work in sales.

Well, nowadays, with so much online, what used to be white collar jobs are often done at home, in people’s PJ’s, and their slippers. So we’ve got to get rid of these old stereotypes because everything is changing. The data also suggests that part of the crisis in America today is that there are unfilled jobs in these skilled areas. In fact, 70 percent of the jobs that are being hired for right now, do not require a college degree.

What they do require is a high school degree and additional competencies, so that you can weld, but with composite materials, so that you can be a pipefitter, but for the biotech and biofuels industry. So you can be a programmer, but in this case, in a manufacturing plant, not just in a supercomputer center. 30 million jobs are available to pay fifty-five thousand to a hundred thousand a year that don’t require college degrees.

There’s going to be a 12 percent increase in demand for plumbers with the median, not the mean, the medium salary in a year is forty-nine thousand. And welders, let’s not even talk about welders. One hundred thousand unfilled jobs for welders today. And yet how many of you would be delighted if your son came home and said Mom and Dad I want to work in renewable energy, and you’d go yes yes yes. I want to be a welder so I can help build propellers for windmill farms. Oh please son I’ll be so embarrassed if you don’t go to college.

It’s a cultural problem. It’s not just a practical problem, and we’ve got to overcome this cultural bias between people who do, and people who think, because obviously you need both. So I have a solution. I have an idea that I hope all of you are going to walk out of this room with today that could be as powerful as STEM. Now everybody in this room knows about STEM right.

This movement to build the pipeline of talent in science, technology, engineering, and math. High schools, colleges, foundations, corporations, TV stations – everybody’s promoting STEM. Well guess what. We need a similar pipeline in middle skilled jobs. We need a national campaign of equivalent energy and focus, and I even have an acronym for it. I call it HEART. HEART stands for Hands-on, Engaging, Applied, Relevant, Training.

So let me give you a few minutes on the five aspects of heart that I think could transform opportunity in the American workforce today, and create a kind of inclusive economy and competitive economy, we don’t have right now.

Let’s talk about Hands-on. If I had a brain tumor, the last thing in the world I would want is a surgeon who had learned everything he knew online, or in a classroom, or from a text book, or out of lectures with all my rocket science neurosurgeons at UCSD. What do you want if you’re going to have brain surgery? Somebody who’s done lots of surgery.

A 100, you’ve done 100 surgeries? Great. 200? Even better. Why? Because to do neurosurgery requires practice, practice, experience. It’s sentient, and it’s not just in your head. It’s the same thing if you’re building underground parking, or you’re building LEED certified buildings. You want construction personnel who know how to work with the materials, who know how to build the foundations, create structures, and you want practice, practice, practice. Hands-on.

The underground parking structure at the University of Massachusetts in Boston is collapsing. because it wasn’t properly constructed. This is a true story. So that’s why I focus on hands-on as number one.

Number two is Engaging. Now engaging means that learning is a social process, right? You and I can sit in our pajamas, on our computer, in our kitchen, and get a bachelor’s degree, but we probably are going to learn differently, and possibly more, if we have the opportunity to be face-to-face, arguing about issues, or attempting together to find a solution to a problem.

We call it Project Based Learning in the academic world, and there’s not enough of it, anywhere, but it’s essential for middle skilled jobs because you have to assess, you have to figure out what are the materials that are needed, what do I need to make this work.

Applied is crucial as well, and it’s different than engaging. What we hear, I do a lot of research with employers, and whether it’s a college graduate, somebody with a Ph.D., or a high school graduate, you’re sending me people who don’t know how to put their skills to work, who don’t know how to use knowledge in an applied setting.

And so I’m a big advocate, if we’re going to change that, building into educational experiences the opportunity to work on real world problems. Whether that’s building a website for a Boys and Girls Club, or installing a sink at a church, or helping to construct an organic garden, you learn by applying your skills, your knowledge, to a real problem in a real world setting.

Relevance is important because many of us are motivated, not just by money, but by the belief that we’re making a difference in the lives of other people, and we don’t give young people a chance to see how what they do is relevant. And so I think the applied and experiences that we give them put them in settings where they can see. “Oh I helped adapt this house for a disabled person, I helped create a watering system that conserves energy.”

And then Training. I’m at UCSD. You know we walk around saying. “We don’t train we educate.” Well, we’ve got to get over this vicious dichotomy between education and training. Neurosurgeons are educated and trained. Right? They have to do stuff, as well as know stuff. And so I’m an advocate for HEART. Hands-on, Engaging, Applied, Relevant experiences and Training that empower people to work in many of the technical and middle skilled jobs that this country so needs, and we have so paid no attention to for much too long.

So in sum, my call to action is let’s put a little HEART into STEM. You know we’re not going to be a competitive country without heart, and we’re also not going to be an inclusive economy without heart.