WASHINGTON – The U.S. faces a shortage of workers with technical skills, a gap that could be filled with more access to training, experts said at a congressional hearing. 

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing focused on the importance of community colleges, apprenticeships and mentorship programs in filling the “skills gap.”

In the next decade, 2 million jobs will go unfilled because not enough people have the skills to do them said Montez King, executive director of the National Institute of Metalworking Skills.   

The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – known as STEM – are transforming blue-collar jobs across the country. So STEM education needs to be more accessible, to more people, said Victor McCrary, Morgan State University Vice President for Research and Economic Development.   

“There’s a stigma associated with community colleges, technical schools and vocational training,” he said, adding, “We need to change that perception and fix our own blind spots and baggage to recognize how critical these workers are to the success of our nation’s science and enterprise.” 

Witnesses also stressed the challenges of putting people in these programs.  

“More affordable education is more important than ever,” said John Sands, a professor at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois.

Experts also emphasized the importance of apprentice and partnership programs.  

“Students benefit by gaining experience and learn workforce skills that are difficult to replicate in the classroom,” Sands said. 

Mentorship plays an important role especially for representation of women and minorities in STEM fields. 

“Encouraging college women to spend time with girls in middle school is a big deal because it gives them a role model. It shows them you can be a normal girl and major in a STEM area,” said Wichita State University President John Bardo.

Witnesses bemoaned the fact that women are underrepresented in STEM jobs, where they hold only 24 percent of positions. 

Lawmakers on the Subcommitee on Research and Technology say they are considering legislation on “workforce training and matching the open jobs to what we’re training in schools.” 

 Trump’s budget proposes expanding apprenticeships and provides $1.1 billion in funding for Perkins grants, which are to be spent on improving career and technical training. The proposal, however, would limit the grants to “high demand fields.”