A skills gap? Try paying more

Is there a skills gap? Or a bunch of cheapskate employers offering low wages for high-level skills? Skills Don’t Pay the Bills writes Adam Davidson in the New York Times Magazine.

Earlier this month, hoping to understand the future of the moribund manufacturing job market, I visited the engineering technology program at Queensborough Community College in New York City. . . . As the instructor Joseph Goldenberg explained, today’s skilled factory worker is really a hybrid of an old-school machinist and a computer programmer. Goldenberg’s intro class starts with the basics of how to use cutting tools to shape a raw piece of metal. Then the real work begins: students learn to write the computer code that tells a machine how to do it much faster.

Computer-controlled machines have replaced low-skilled factory workers, writes Davidson. Manufacturers need “people who know how to run the computer that runs the machine.”

Running these machines requires a basic understanding of metallurgy, physics, chemistry, pneumatics, electrical wiring and computer code. It also requires a worker with the ability to figure out what’s going on when the machine isn’t working properly.

Goldenberg’s students will find jobs, the instructor says. Nationwide, manufacturers say there are 600,000 jobs available for skilled workers.  Both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney talked about the skills gap during the campaign.

But if employers really were desperate, they’d raise wages, argues Davidson. In most places, that hasn’t happened.

Eric Isbister, the C.E.O. of GenMet, a metal-fabricating manufacturer outside Milwaukee, told me that he would hire as many skilled workers as show up at his door. Last year, he received 1,051 applications and found only 25 people who were qualified. He hired all of them, but soon had to fire 15. Part of Isbister’s pickiness, he says, comes from an avoidance of workers with experience in a “union-type job.” Isbister, after all, doesn’t abide by strict work rules and $30-an-hour salaries. At GenMet, the starting pay is $10 an hour. Those with an associate degree can make $15, which can rise to $18 an hour after several years of good performance.

When manufacturers raise pay, they can find enoughskilled workers — except in a few cities where the oil industry is booming, according to a Boston Consulting Group city.  “Trying to hire high-skilled workers at rock-bottom rates is not a skills gap,” the study concludes.

CUNY faculty fight Pathways standardization

To conform with City University of New York’s Pathways program, which is designed to help community college students transfer credits, English professors at Queensborough Community College were told to cut an hour from four-hour composition courses. They refused. In response, a college vice president,  Karen Steele, sent the department a memo threatening to cancel the composition courses and tell students to take composition at other CUNY campuses. The enrollment drop would force the college to cancel job searches for full-time faculty, send layoff notices to adjuncts and possibly lay off full-time professors, Steele wrote.

Faculty are furious, reports Inside Higher Ed.  After the memo was attacked on several blogs – The Danger of Ignoring Shared Governance, and CUNY Declares War on Rebel English Department were two headlines — the college president told faculty there’s no retaliation plan: “The potential consequences as described in Vice President Steele’s email illustrate the worst case scenario — one we are prepared to work mightily to avoid,” wrote Diane Call.

Some faculty leaders believe Pathways “takes too much power away from individual campuses and departments, and that easing transfer could come at the expense of academic rigor,” notes Inside Higher Ed. Those fears now have been inflamed.

Teaching immigrants English through art

New York City’s Queensborough Community College will work with museums to teach English to adult immigrants through art, reports the Times-Ledger.

Culture and Literacy through Arts for the 21st Century will be a partnership among community colleges in the CUNY system, Queens College’s Godwin-Ternbach Museum, the Rubin Museum of Art, the Katonah Museum of Art and El Museo del Barrio plus The Literacy Assistance Center and Visual Thinking Strategies.

Teachers and museum educators to work with a minimum of 50 students and their families per year.

The crucial first semester

The first semester is make-or-break time for many students at Queensborough Community College in New York City. Faced with high dropout rates, QCC decided in 2009 to enroll all first-time, full-time students in one of six freshmen academies based on their field of study, reports the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Each academy has a freshmen coordinator, who serves as an academic adviser and student advocate, and a faculty coordinator, says Michele Cuomo, associate dean for academic affairs at QCC. Both collaborate with student affairs staff on activities to reinforce classroom learning and build community.

The six academies focus on Business, Education, Visual and Performing Arts, STEM, Health-Related Science or Liberal Arts. (Undecided students are enrolled in liberal arts.)

The freshmen coordinators and the office of new student enrollment oversee the entire post-admission process, including placement tests, financial aid, submission of medical records, confirmation of major, academic advisement and registration.

Students “are not just a face or a number— we get to know them pretty well,” says Anna Schneider, who’s worked as a coordinator in the business and arts academies. “They’re with us for maybe a year going through the academy for the first 30 credits, and it makes it easier for them to ask us questions.”

The college has also piloted an early alert system that allows faculty to flag students who are not attending or are in academic trouble, generating an e-mail that is immediately sent to the freshmen coordinator for that student’s academy.

Fewer first-year students are withdrawing from classes.

Faculty coordinators guide students to classes using “high-impact practices” (HIP), such as learning communities, shared intellectual experiences, collaborative assignments and projects, service and community-based learning, cornerstone courses and e-portfolios.

Cornerstone courses are section of required, foundational courses for particular programs—composition or math classes, for example—with content and activities customized for the students in particular academies. “Students become engaged because, say, they want to be a nurse, and they’re reading material that relates to healthcare, death and dying— they’re engaged because it relates to their major, and they’re beginning to make connections to their goals in a freshman composition course,” Cuomo says.

Faculty coordinators also reach out to the many adjuncts teaching at QCC.