Justin Cornett’s story had been a 21st-century economic nightmare. He worked for 13 years on drilling rigs at a crude oil company near his home in Dorton, Ky. Then it halted production, and he was laid off. At 33, with two children and a mortgage, he couldn’t find a stable new job of the kind he had trained for, because all the oil and coal mining companies in the area were shutting down.
Then things changed. He found a 16-week retraining program where he learned to program the computer numerical control, or CNC, machines used in advanced manufacturing. He got a job at a Lockheed Martin factory nearby, and it paid even more than his old one. “It was a little bit different, but it was easy for me,” said Mr. Cornett, now 36. “I worked with my hands in the oil fields doing things of that nature, so it was pretty easy to catch on.”
If his story’s ending sounds like a fairy tale, that’s because it is for many workers like Mr. Cornett — people without college degrees who work in occupations that are shrinking, with few other local options for the skills they have. “The U.S. faces a serious skills gap,” R. Alexander Acosta, the secretary of labor, said last month when the Trump administration introduced steps to address the challenge.
But many of the skills needed to do fading jobs are applicable to growing jobs. A big part of the problem is the labor market does a poor job of matching employers with employees — in hiring, and in educating and retraining them to meet employers’ needs.
“To solve this problem, people will need to have more skills, but the generation of skills is more an effect than a cause,” said Byron Auguste, co-founder of Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit for job seekers with nontraditional backgrounds. “It works for half our work force but not for the other half.”
A New York Times review of the activities and skills that jobs entail, based on the Labor Department’s O*Net database, shows how much overlap there is between many seemingly dissimilar occupations. Service industry jobs, for example, require social skills and experience working with customers — which also apply to sales and office jobs.