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Viewpoint: Worker Shortage Prompts Vocational Branding

A group of nurses wearing surgical masks in front of a building.

​The U.S. is battling its biggest worker shortage in 80 years. In the first quarter of 2022, analysts at financial services company Goldman Sachs said there were 4.6 million more jobs than there were potential workers.  

Worker shortages, exacerbated by fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, have renewed interest on career choice. Instead of "join my company," more employers are saying, "pursue this career." 

It's a subtle but distinct difference. The ideas and activities that promote a career are considered vocational branding.

Nursing as a Vocation

Connie Knorr, director of professional development at Nebraska Health Care Association, worked for years as a long-term care registered nurse and trainer. She often talks up the profession as being not just a job, but a vocation. To Knorr, health care workers serve an essential role in society.

"My focus right now is to get young people interested in nursing and long-term care," she said.

According to the American Nurses Association, more registered nurse jobs will be available through 2022 than any other profession in the U.S. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that more than 275,000 additional nurses are needed from 2020 to 2030.

Knorr's vocational branding activities include career fairs, classroom presentations and strategic leadership as a board member of HOSA Future Health Professionals, a national organization that supports career development in health professions.

To boost the brand of nursing as a career, Knorr said she's spent more time on social media channels like TikTok and Instagram. 

"One positive that came from the pandemic was that people all seemed to agree that we have an essential profession," she said. "You saw the news stories. Long-term-care workers were the families for our older citizens whose loved ones were unable to visit. Those stories are some of the best tools we have to bring more people to the profession."

Truckers Are Going Places

Donna England, vice president of safety and member services at the Tennessee Trucking Association (TTA), has stepped up her efforts to promote truck driving and diesel technician careers.

"You have to get into high schools," England said, "otherwise, the next generation isn't going to hear about these types of careers, and that's when many career choices are made."

American Trucking Associations reports that the U.S. will be short 160,000 professional truck drivers by 2030, and it projects the need for one million new drivers during the next 10 years.

TTA's vocational branding efforts rely on association volunteers. They normally compete for drivers, but England said they put those goals to the side and collaborate to convince students to take up trucking as a career. 

"It's all about getting the word out that we have great, high-paying jobs, and we have a career path that goes places," England said. "The more drivers and tech we can get to the schools, the more applicants they'll all have to choose from."

State Patrol Is More Than Policing

A whopping 86 percent of the nation's law enforcement agencies reported experiencing a staffing shortage, according to a 2020 survey by the National Police Foundation. 

Lt. Jason Pace, assistant director of the Missouri State Highway Patrol's Recruiting and Community Outreach Division, looks to fill openings for patrol and civilian careers as well. 

"On the Patrol, every one of us are recruiters," he said. Pace indicated that his vocational branding activities also help boost public trust and cooperation.

"When I visit a school, most students don't understand all the different career opportunities the Missouri State Highway Patrol has to offer, like becoming a trooper, pilot, marine operations officer, driver examiner, commercial vehicle officer or a radio operator," he said. "Regardless of how we serve the citizens of Missouri, we're all proud of what we do."

Even if students don't join the Missouri State Patrol, Pace said, some may choose other career paths in law enforcement. His message is simple: If you want to do something meaningful and help people, law enforcement is a great career choice.

He said media involvement also helps brand law enforcement as a career, and the Patrol invites media to school events and other community outreach activities. Pace said he discusses some of the 60 different career paths the Patrol has. 

Pace has served on the Patrol for 25 years. His father and brother both served.

Students See Themselves in College Ambassadors

Diana Garcia, dean of industrial technology and transportation at Iowa Western Community College, was brought to the college to build a program. Her goal is to get more students interested in careers offered at the college. She sends faculty and volunteers to schools for visits. 

"Getting in front of people is important," she said. "When students can see themselves in a presenter, that career becomes a possibility. They get to touch it, to see it, to believe that it could be a reality for them, too."

Garcia said that selling a career is akin to selling a lifestyle. She said her vocational branding efforts are multifaceted, and she encourages careers be taught at her college.

"There's a huge push to get students at an early age excited about the future and showing them that being a 'hands-on' student is a good thing and that a four-year college isn't the only answer," she said.

Don't Focus on Just Your School

Tim Kordula, a commercial driver license (CDL) instructor and administrator for Karl's Transport, a CDL training school, said attracting students to the trucking industry remains a major goal. 

His vocational branding efforts include career fairs for both adult and high school audiences. Kordula has done radio and TV and works with state and federal governments to promote the industry. He recently joined the U.S. Department of Labor Trucking Apprenticeship Challenge to pull more people from Generation Z into the industry.

"I'm very passionate and believe in my industry as a whole," Kordula said. "We have a shortage of 80,000 drivers and that could grow to more than one million in the next 10 years. I really want to be a part of the solution."

Kordula said it's important to talk up the career even if people end up attending a different school.

Return on Investment

Because vocational branding is new, no study directly shows a return on investment.

However, HR often justifies employer branding expenses and activities by stating a cost-per-hire formula (recruiting costs divided by number of qualified applicants). According to the 2017 SHRM Human Capital Benchmarking Report, the average cost-per-hire in the U.S. is $4,129.

If a successful vocational branding effort increases the number of welders, certified nursing assistants and truckers in a market, then the number of applicants will increase and help lower that cost-per-hire.

According to, the return on investment for employer branding is significant. On average, organizations may see a 43 percent decrease in cost-per-hire and find an easier time attracting talent.

David Zelnio, SHRM-CP, is a 30-year human resources and internal and external communications professional. He served 10 years on the SHRM Nebraska State Council and his research on recruiting Generation Z to the transportation careers is used for career outreach by the American Transportation Research Institute and NextGen in Trucking Association. Currently, Zelnio works as marketing communications manager at Garner Industries in Lincoln, Neb.


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