Manufacturers see skills gap


Workers assemble the Chevy Volt electric vehicles and Opel Amperas at the General Motors Detroit Hamtramck Assembly Plant on Oct. 11, 2011, in Hamtramck, Mich.

More than half a million skilled manufacturing jobs remain unfilled due to the labor skills gap in the U.S., according to one estimate.

Many job applicants lack the basic math and computer skills needed to train for high-tech manufacturing jobs, employers complain.

U.S. manufacturing employs more than 12 million workers.  An estimated 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs are unfilled, according to a 2012 Deloitte study.  That could increase as more baby boomers retire.

“If we can’t fill the skills gap, it’s going to be very difficult to be competitive in the global market,” said Ted Toth, vice president and managing director of manufacturing technologies at Rosenberger-Toth, which manufactures parts for satellites and cellphone towers.

. . . “To understand the skills gap, we have to understand how the public understands manufacturing,” the head of the New Jersey-based company said. “They see it as a dark, dirty, dangerous industry.”

Young people need to be told that manufacturing is a viable alternative to pursuing a bachelor’s degree, said Toth. Employees are “blue tech” workers, he said.  “They utilize technology such as computerized machines and robotics, and also in new and exciting careers in three to four times the minimum wage.”

Business leaders in two western Ohio counties are working to interest high school students in skilled trades jobs. The Auglaize & Mercer County Business Education Alliance is raising money to hire an outreach coordinator who will visit local high schools.

Electrical contractor Jack Buschur wants to find high school graduates interested in training to be electricians. “We have lots of opportunities,” Buschur says. “We’d like to keep our young people in the area and see them make a very good living.”

Bring back shop classes, writes Josh Mandel, Ohio state treasurer, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.Too many young people have four-year liberal-arts degrees, are thousands in debt and find themselves serving coffee at Starbucks or working part-time at the mall,” he writes. “Many of them would have been better off with a two-year skilled-trade or technical education that provides the skills to secure a well-paying job.”

Statway offers path to college math

The traditional path to college-level math was a dead end for many students at Pierce College, reports Jason Song for the Los Angeles Times. So the community college is trying the Carnegie Foundation’s alternative path to math success, an algebra-and-statistics mix called Statway.

Catalina Daneshfar needs to pass algebra to transfer to a state university. Placed in remedial math at Pierce, she’d hired a tutor and still ended up with a D.

This year, she earned an A in the first semester of Statway. She’s on schedule to earn enough credits to transfer to a Cal State University campus next year.  “Statway saved my life,” Daneshfar said. “At the very least, it saved me from another year of school.”

Math is one of the biggest obstacles to success for California’s community college students, reports the Times.

About 73% of freshmen at community colleges need remedial math, according to state statistics, and only about a third of these students end up transferring to a four-year school or graduating with an associate’s degree, according to state figures.

The numbers are worse at Pierce, where only about 13% of students pass enough math courses to transfer, according to professors.

About half of Pierce’s Statway students earn a C or better. That lets them fulfill transfer requirements more quickly than typical remedial students.

The course covers basic and remedial algebra as well as statistics in two semesters and is designed for students who plan to major in liberal arts or non-science fields. Transferring Pierce students normally have to take three semesters of math, generally two semesters of algebra and an elective.

The Cal State system accepts Statway for transfer credit on a temporary basis, but the University of California does not. “So far, Statway has not reached the level of quality we expect,” said George Johnson, a UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor who has reviewed courses.

Including Pierce, six California community colleges offer Statway: American River College near Sacramento, Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Diablo Valley College in Contra Costa County, Foothill College in Los Altos Hills and San Diego City College.

First comes math

Virginia community colleges have redesigned remediation, said Chancellor Glenn Dubois at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference. In First Comes Math, a panel discussed the remediation crisis at community colleges.

Seventy-two percent of new community college students were placed in developmental math in 2006, according to Achieving the Dream, a reform group. Three years later, 77 percent had not qualified for a college-level math course.

“Remediation is an access issue,” Dubois said. Columbia University’s Community College Resource Center studied the Virginia community colleges, finding that 75 percent of remedial students “will ultimately go nowhere.”

Math instructors helped shift course requirements to match students’ goals: Students in non-STEM majors don’t need as much math.

After one year in full effect across Virginia’s 23 community colleges, many more students are completing remediation courses – in a matter of months, not years – and advancing to college courses, Dubois said. “You can’t try to do these things at scale unless your faculty are on board and, in our case, we gave them a leadership role.”

Since adjuncts teach most remedial courses, Dubois is trying to raise the status of remediation faculty and provide more support and training. But that takes money, he said. 

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching created Pathways, alternative developmental math curricula that focus on statistics and quantitative reasoning. In the first two years, more than 50 percent of students earned college math credit in one year. That compares to only 5 percent of community college students in traditional developmental math.

Success paths for all

How can high schools ensure graduates are college- and career-ready, asks an Education Next forum.

Students need multiple pathways, writes Robert Schwartz, a Harvard professor emeritus who coleads the Pathways to Prosperity Network. “We have allowed a very important idea—that all students need a solid foundation of core academic knowledge and skills—to morph into a not-so-good idea: that all students need to be prepared to attend a four-year college,” he writes.

If we follow a cohort of 8th graders, roughly 2 in 10 will drop out before high school graduation, and another 3 will graduate high school but choose not to enroll in postsecondary education. Of those who do go on and enroll in four-year institutions, nearly 4 in 10 will drop out before attaining a degree. Of those who enroll in community colleges, roughly 7 in 10 will drop out. The bottom line: by age 25, only 33 percent of the cohort will have attained a four-year degree, and another 10 percent will have earned a two-year degree.

Many good jobs require some education beyond high school but not a four-year degree, Schwartz writes. He likes the northern European model: “All students pursue a common curriculum up through grade 9 or 10, and then choose between an academics-only pathway leading to university and a more applied-learning pathway leading to a vocational qualification.”

Instead of letting students choose their path, we “force march all students” through a math sequence leading to calculus, a goal few will achieve and even fewer will need, he writes.

Yet most community college students and many university students aren’t prepared for college algebra. “In my view, the vast majority of students in two- and four-year institutions would be much better served by getting a solid grounding in data, statistics, and probability in high school,” he writes.

Common foundational skills are essential, writes Cynthia G. Brown, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. All students should take a college-prep curriculum, but high school students could choose “curricular options that fit their interests, skills, and plans for the future.”

Colleges start remediation in high school

When William Penn High graduates go on to Harrisburg Area Community College‘s York (Pennsylvania) campus, 92 percent place into remedial reading and 100 percent require remedial math. “These kids are scoring in the lowest developmental levels that we have,” said Dean Marjorie A. Mattis at the American Association of Community College convention. So, this year, 12th graders are taking HACC’s developmental courses in English and math, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. The program was piloted last year for a smaller number of students.

Students take placement tests at the end of their junior year, and in the fall they report to a “HACC hallway,” painted in the college’s colors, with classroom tables instead of desks. Teachers must meet the criteria for instructors at the college, which at least one already is. Summer sessions familiarize them with the college’s textbooks, syllabi, and method of assignment review, and during the year the teachers work with college-faculty liaisons.

At the end of the pilot year, tests—offered on the York campus, so students might take them more seriously—showed significant improvement. In English 37 percent of students placed one level higher than they had initially, and in math 39 percent did.

Students who start at a higher level of remediation improve their odds of success, said Mattis.

Anne Arundel Community College, in eastern Maryland, is offering the college’s developmental-math courses in two high schools.

Starting last academic year, seniors shifted to a model called Math Firs3t, an abbreviation for “focused individualized resources to support student success with technology.” The computer-based approach involves mastery testing, in which students retake tests until they score at least 70, said Alycia Marshall, a professor and interim chair of mathematics at Anne Arundel, describing the program during a session here.

Of 134 seniors last spring, 107 passed both of the developmental courses, she said. And of those students, 34 enrolled at Anne Arundel and registered for a credit-level math course, which is often a stumbling block for students coming out of remediation. But 30 of them passed.

One of AACC’s long-term goals is to decrease by half the number of students who come to college unprepared.

Students like STEM, but don’t succeed

Nearly half of  students say they’re interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields — including health care — when they start college, but few will earn a STEM degree, according to a Complete College America report.

Forty-eight percent of recent ACT takers express interest in a STEM major, reports ACT. Forty-one percent of new four-year students and 45 percent of two-year students choose a STEM major, including health sciences, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Four-year students favor health science, biological science and engineering, while two-year students are interested in health sciences and computer science.

Most don’t make it.

Among 4-year students, 57% of students who choose health sciences and 59% who choose computer science never complete a credential in that field.  The problem is more profound at 2-year colleges where 58% of health science and 72% of computer science students leave the program without a credential.

Those who stick with STEM complete college-level math in their first year, the report finds. Quitters don’t. They also complete few science courses.

Complete College America proposes scheduling college-level math and a majority of STEM courses in the first year to keep students on track. That will help only if students are prepared to pass college math, which many are not.

Community colleges are filled with young women who “think they’re going to be nurses” but won’t be, a researcher once told me. They don’t have the math or science foundation.

First-generation college students often focus on nursing because they’re not aware of their alternatives, writes Matt Reed, a community college dean. A colleague told him her job is to “talk students out of nursing.”

Stop pretending college is for everyone

College isn’t for everyone, writes Mike Petrilli on Slate. So let’s stop pretending it is.

All students — regardless of their academic or “soft skills” — are told that college is the only path to a decent job, he writes. But low-skilled students are set up for “almost certain failure,” Petrilli argues. They need “high-quality career and technical education, ideally the kind that combines rigorous coursework with a real-world apprenticeship, and maybe even a paycheck.”

Poorly prepared students can go to an open-access college, but few succeed, he writes. Less than 10 percent of community college students who start in remedial courses will complete a two-year degree within three years, estimates Complete College America. Most will quit before taking a college-level course.

College access advocates look at those numbers and want to double down on reform, seeking to improve the quality of remedial education, or to skip it entirely, encouraging unprepared students to enroll directly in credit-bearing courses, or to offer heavy doses of student support. All are worth trying for students at the margins. But few people are willing to admit that perhaps college just isn’t a good bet for people with seventh-grade reading and math skills at the end of high school.

Unfortunately, our federal education policy encourages schools and students to ignore the long odds of college success. Federal Pell Grants, for instance, can be used for remedial education; institutions are more than happy to take the money, even if they are terrible at remediating students’ deficits, which is why I’ve proposed making remedial education ineligible for Pell financing. On the other hand, Pell can only be used for vocational education that takes place through an accredited college or university; job-based training, and most apprenticeships, do not qualify. That should change.

By pretending that low-skilled students “have a real shot at earning a college degree,” we mislead them, Petrilli argues. They’re less likely to pursue a path that might lead to success.

Petrilli’s argument represents the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” charges RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. “Vocational ed tracks are a legacy of ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model, both of which emerged from the bigoted assumption that poor and minority kids (especially those from immigrant households) were incapable of mastering academic subjects.” 

“College-preparatory learning is critical for success in both white- and blue-collar professions,” he argues. Young people who are not “college material” won’t be “blue-collar material” either.

High-paying blue-collar jobs require high levels of reading, math and science literacy, Biddle writes. All require postsecondary training, often at a community college.

Welders, for example, need strong trigonometry and geography skills in order to properly fabricate and assemble products. . . . Machine tool-and-die work involves understanding computer programming languages such as C . . . Even elevator installers-repairmen, along with electrical and electronics installers, need strong science skills in order because their work combines electrical, structural and mechanical engineering.

I agree with Petrilli that young people get very bad advice. By ninth grade, they should be told the odds — based on high school grades — of completing a bachelor’s degree, vocational associate degree or a vocational certificate. They should know that a dental hygienist or a welder may earn more than a four-year graduate in sociology, theater arts or just-about anything studies.

They need to know early, so they have time to develop the reading, writing and — especially — math skills they’ll need to pursue a technical or academic education.

Students who master middle-school math can study statistics, data analysis, applied geometry and/or mathematical modeling to prepare for a range of careers, concludes What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? by the National Center on Education and The Economy. “Fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the (algebra to calculus) sequence in their college or in the workplace.”

Boot camp speeds path to college math

A math boot camp at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) in Pennsylvania is giving students a chance to move quickly to college-level math, reports Community College Daily.

Many students are “spinning their wheels” in developmental math, said Jason Rosenberry, associate professor of mathematics at HACC. It takes time and money to work their way through four levels of remedial math.

In fall 2012, and again in summer 2013, HACC offered a free weeklong boot camp to students whose ACCUPLACER scores were within five points of the cut score for testing into pre-algebra or beginning algebra. The program combined in-person instruction and online tutoring via Pearson Education’s MyFoundationsLab.

Instruction took place for four afternoons. Students completed homework online. On the fifth day, students retook the ACCUPLACER test, free of charge.

Results were promising. About 80 percent of students in both boot camps advanced one or two levels of developmental math. Arithmetic scores on the ACCUPLACER jumped 16 points and elementary algebra scores increased 5 points in fall 2012 and 8 points in summer 2013.

Online learning gave students “instantaneous, immediate feedback,” Rosenberry said.

In the future, HACC may open the boot camp to all interested students, tinker with the schedule and charge students a small fee.

Placement prep should be the norm

If community colleges are going to use placement tests, they should tell students their scores matter and give everyone a practice test, write Susan Bickerstaff and Maggie Fay, in USA Today.

Last fall, millions of incoming community college students were relegated to non-credit remedial courses. Many will remain in remediation for as long as two years, spending tuition on courses that don’t count towards a degree. Large numbers will drop out before taking a real college class. Only about a quarter will go on to earn any kind of degree.

Many need remediation, but some could do well in college-level courses, write Bickerstaff and Fay,  research associates at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. A little test prep could make all the difference.

But that’s not happening. Community college students often find out about the tests only on the day they enroll. Community college registration offices tend to downplay the tests’ importance, reassuring students that their purpose is simply to gauge “where you are.” That hardly encourages students to prepare.

Even when colleges offer test prep materials, many students don’t use the help, concludes a new CCRC survey of math students at four community colleges. Some lack confidence in their math skills and want to take easy classes. Many students “have little faith they can meet educational challenges through extra study,” the researchers write.

Community colleges should consider more than test scores in deciding on placement, they advise. In addition, community colleges should make test prep the norm. “At the very least, community colleges should mandate that all entering students take a practice test, inform students of the implications of a low score and provide high-quality review materials before the test.”

ASAP: More guidance, more degrees

Easy come, easy go is the unofficial motto of community colleges. Anyone can enroll. Few will graduate. Daquan McGee escaped the community college trap by enrolling in City University of New York’s structured, guided, get-it-done ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), writes Ann Hurlbert in The Atlantic.

McGee enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the spring of 2010. At 19, he’d served two years in prison for attempted robbery. He failed placement tests in writing and math, but passed an intensive remedial writing course over the summer, while working full-time at a Top Tomato Super Store. He opted for ASAP in the fall.

McGee would have to enroll full-time . . . Every other week, he would be required to meet with his adviser, who would help arrange his schedule and track his progress. In addition to his full course load, McGee would have to complete his remaining remedial class, in math, immediately. If he slipped up, his adviser would hear about it from his instructor—and mandatory tutoring sessions would follow. If he failed, he would have to retake the class right away. Also on McGee’s schedule was a non-optional, noncredit weekly College Success Seminar, featuring time-management strategies, tips on study habits and goal setting, exercises in effective communication, and counsel on other life skills. The instructor would be taking attendance. If McGee complied with all that was asked of him, he would be eligible for . . . a free, unlimited MetroCard good for the following month. More important, as long as he stayed on track, the portion of his tuition not already covered by financial aid would be waived.

McGee graduated with an associate’s degree in multimedia studies in two and a half years. (I’d love to know if he’s been able to get a better job. Is he on a career path?)

In urban community colleges, the national three-year graduation rate is 16 percent, Hurlbert writes. “Nationwide, barely more than a third of community-college enrollees emerge with a certificate or degree within six years.”

ASAP, launched in 2007, aims to get half its students to a degree in three years. It appears to be exceeding that goal, according to preliminary results of a three-year study that randomly assigned students to either ASAP or the regular community-college track. “A third of the students who enrolled in ASAP in the spring of 2010 finished in two and a half years (compared with 18 percent of the control group),” Hurlbert writes.

 ASAP offers lots of guidance, a dose of goading, and a variety of well-timed incentives to its participants (average age at admission: 21), who must sign on to the goal of graduating within three years. The program is intended primarily for low-income students with moderate remedial needs, and it accepts applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. . . . The implicit philosophy behind the program is simple: students, especially the least prepared ones, don’t just need to learn math or science; they need to learn how to navigate academic and institutional challenges more broadly, and how to plot a course—daily, weekly, monthly—toward long-term success.

The City University of New York spends an average of $9,800 a year for a community college student; ASAP adds another $3,900 per student. That’s a lot — until you calculate the price per graduate. Then, ASAP is a bargain.