Listening to the Skilled Technical Workforce

By Christina Maranto and Mateo Munoz

On the heels of the announcement that LIGO pioneers Barry Barish, Kip Thorne, and Rainer Weiss had been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the direct observation of gravitational waves, we, as AAAS Policy Fellows supporting the National Science Board (NSB) joined members of the NSB, the governing body of the National Science Foundation, on a visit to LIGO in Livingston, Louisiana to learn about the research, the facility, and the dedicated scientific workforce that made this groundbreaking discovery possible.

After a captivating presentation on the events leading up to the historic detection, we accompanied the NSB on a facility tour. Alongside a bright undergraduate intern and a group of energetic postdoctoral researchers, our group met David Barker, the person who maintains LIGO’s impressive, two-story heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Barker is a skilled technician whose skillset and dedication are essential to the function of this technically complex facility.

Like Barker, workers who use technical skills in their jobs but who do not have a four-year degree are part of the nation’s skilled technical workforce (STW). Although the Board was at LIGO to learn about “the science,” we also learned that without the technical workers who support the researchers and the technical operations of the facility, the Nobel-winning science would not be possible. While scientific breakthroughs often conjure the stereotype of the lone genius toiling in the lab, the reality is that discoveries are the product of a scientific team that includes workers at every level, ranging from people with certificates, an apprenticeship credential, associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees.

corner station hanford

LIGO tube image

Behind the scenes at each of the LIGO interferometers there is a complex infrastructure of vacuum chambers, optics, electronics, and data networks. All of it requires a skilled technical workforce to operate and maintain.

Throughout America, skilled technical workers are an increasingly important segment of the science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. These workers are in traditional “blue-collar” professions such as plumbing and welding, but also increasingly in information technology and health care fields. In 2015, the median annual earnings for skilled technical workers in “science and engineering” ($60,000) or “science and engineering-related” ($45,000) occupations were significantly higher than the median earnings in other occupations ($29,000) [1]. Skilled technical occupations not only offer solid middle-class salaries, but are also predicted to be among the fastest growing over the next decade [2]. Despite these trends, employers consistently report that they have trouble filling these jobs.

In November 2017, the NSB officially established its Task Force on the Skilled Technical Workforce to identify the opportunities and challenges facing students, incumbent workers, businesses, educators, and others involved with the STW and recommend strategies to strengthen it. Building on its 2015 report, Revisiting the STEM Workforce, the NSB has promoted policies that support a STEM-capable US. workforce that includes individuals from all demographic groups, at all education levels, and in all geographical locales. In February 2018, the NSB published Our Nation’s Future Competitiveness Relies on Building a STEM-Capable US Workforce, a policy statement encouraging the coordination of policies and investments aimed at building and strengthening on-ramps into skilled technical careers.

Strengthening the STW is also a priority for policymakers, with efforts underway to expand post-secondary opportunities for both young people and adults. Congress and the Administration have renewed interest in strengthening the skilled technical workforce through apprenticeship, an age-old workplace learning program that requires a substantial investment by the employer. For example, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology introduced the “Innovations in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeship Act,” which emphasizes engagement with industry partners willing to offer applied learning opportunities such as apprenticeships and internships [3]. In July 2018, the Administration formed the President’s National Council for the American Worker to develop a national strategy to ensure that America’s students and workers are prepared for 21st century jobs, which often require skilled technical training [4].

For its part, the NSB is contributing to these efforts by getting outside Washington, DC, to hear from communities that have a direct stake in the skilled technical workforce. By holding “listening sessions” with students, educators, industry, and government officials in multiple geographic regions and industry sectors, the NSB hopes to understand the varied challenges the STW faces across the country.

The NSB held its first listening session in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a region where the oil and gas industries fuel some 260,000 jobs. Like many community colleges, Baton Rouge Community College, which hosted the session, is an essential education center for students entering the skilled technical workforce. The NSB’s second listening session took place at Macomb Community College (MCC) in Warren, Michigan. MCC is in the heart of the rejuvenated automobile industry and home to the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology (CAAT), a NSF-funded Advanced Technological Education center. CAAT’s mission is to meet the expanding workforce needs of the automotive industry by increasing the pool of skilled technical workers in advanced automotive technology including automated and connected vehicles, and vehicle electrification.

In total, over 50 participants from multiple sectors including, academia, industry, non-profit, chambers of commerce, and state government participated in these sessions. They shared their perceptions of the challenges facing the STW in their communities. While some significant differences exist between Baton Rouge and Warren, including socio-economic factors, we observed several common themes:

  1. Stigma: Students and parents continue to believe that a four-year college degree is required for a lucrative, stable, and enjoyable career. One participant said that “A lot of people don’t know that a four-year degree is not the only way to an American Dream.” There tends to be a view of the career landscape as a dichotomy between jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree and jobs that are “no skill.” High school guidance counselors can also perpetuate this view by promoting the benefits of a four-year degree while neglecting to highlight educational and career pathways in technical fields that do not require a four-year degree. And lastly, for some technical jobs in the manufacturing fields, people are not aware that they are clean, bright, and highly technical workspaces.
  2. Skills Gap: Students often lack the appropriate skillset to work in technical careers upon completion of high school and/or training in community college. For example, it is difficult to find qualified teachers who know and understand industry-specific technical skills and as a result, the curriculum may be misaligned. Another factor is that declines in state funding led many public-school systems to cut technical programs.
  3. Human Resources (HR) Practices: Many companies and government employers require a four-year degree for work that could be done by well-trained skilled technical workers, thereby excluding many qualified candidates. HR policies that focus on credentials instead of skills exacerbate worker shortages and block individual opportunities.
  4. Expense and Lack of Wrap-around Services: Community college students tend to be older (averaging 28 years old) and have families and jobs. Additionally, many face socioeconomic hardships. For example, some lack transportation to get to school or training programs. Childcare is also a significant issue, both in terms of cost and time.
  5. Gender Diversity: Technical fields are predominantly male. Women may not be aware of these pathways in part because of the lack of female role models in technical industries.

This past June, NSB held a third listening session, meeting with students and faculty who were participating in NSF’s Community College Innovation Challenge in Alexandria, Virginia. This two-stage competition uses STEM to find innovative solutions to real-world problems. The student finalists and their faculty mentors represented community colleges across the country and echoed many of the same themes that came to light in Warren and Baton Rouge. In September, NSB members visited Florence-Darlington Technical College in Florence, South Carolina to learn more about the workforce needs of the advanced manufacturing industry.

The individuals we’ve met in these listening sessions have moved and inspired us—and the members of the NSB—with their personal stories of overcoming challenges, which are numerous, varied, and complex. Promisingly, there appears to be an energy and willingness to work together to solve these challenges. In the words of one of the listening session participants, “Everyone can help. I don’t care who it is that pulls this off, I just want it to get done.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not in any way represent the views of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Science Board (NSB), the National Science Foundation (NSF), or any other entity of the US Government.

Christina Maranto is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow hosted by the National Science Board Office. Mateo Munoz is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow hosted by the National Science Board Office.


1. National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2018 (Alexandria, VA: National Science Board, 2018), ch. 3, p. 84.

2. For more information on employment projections published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, see

3. House bill HR5509:

4. President’s National Council for the American Worker:

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

December 2018 (Volume 27, Number 11)

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Plan S Tries to Flip the Open Access Switch
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