China invests in college

China is spending $250 billion a year to send tens of millions of young people to community colleges and universities, reports the New York Times. China has quadrupled the output of two- and four-year college graduates in the last decade.

The aim is to change the current system, in which a tiny, highly educated elite oversees vast armies of semi-trained factory workers and rural laborers. China wants to move up the development curve by fostering a much more broadly educated public, one that more closely resembles the multifaceted labor forces of the United States and Europe.

Li Shufu, the chairman of the automaker Geely, has opened a university that stresses engineering and science, particularly auto engineering, endowed a liberal arts university and “opened a 5,000-student vocational community college in his hometown, Taizhou, to train skilled blue-collar workers.”

As recently as 1996, only one in six Chinese 17-year-olds graduated from high school. That was the same proportion as in the United States in 1919. Now, three in five young Chinese graduate from high school, matching the United States in the mid-1950s.

China’s community colleges and universities produce eight million graduates a year, compared to three million a year in the U.S., which has about one-fourth the number of people.

Some question the quality of China’s higher education system, notes the Times.  Experts say “the growth of classroom slots in higher education has outstripped the supply of qualified professors and instructors.”


Apprenticeship + college = opportunity

Apprenticeships are making a comeback, often linked to community college classes, according to the Hechinger Report.

In Tacoma, Jesica Bush earns nearly $25 an hour as an apprentice iron worker while taking classes at Bates Technical College. In three years, she’ll earn a journeyman’s card and an associate degree. A seventh-grade drop-out, she completed her GED while serving a prison term for armed robbery,

A state-funded partnership among community colleges, industry and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is turning out skilled workers needed by Boeing and the rest of Seattle’s aerospace industry. Ironworkers are needed  to help build a $4 billion replacement for the floating 520 Bridge over Lake Washington.

Higher education, advocates say, can not only provide these newly minted workers with the critical-thinking skills they need for today’s jobs, but also leave them better prepared and more appealing to employers the next time things get tough.

. . . Machinists these days have to operate sophisticated, computer-numerical-controlled equipment like the $3 million Makino vertical machining center that Seattle apprentice Irwin Downes has learned to run at JWD Machine in Fife, Wash. The company sent Downes and two other apprentices to Ohio to learn how to run the super lathe, which can cut titanium parts on several axes at once under high heat and jet sprays. Now the three are teaching the factory’s other 42 machinists how to use the time-saving machine to make critical parts for the aerospace industry.

Downes, who is 24, also spends four hours in class one night a week at Bates Technical College. “I knew my feeds and speeds for cutting aluminum, but why is it that way?” says Downes, who previously worked in a Chinese fast-food restaurant for a year after high school. “At Bates, they break it down into a math formula and show us where the numbers come from.”

Ironworker apprentices spend 11 months on the job, often doing hard physical labor, and one month taking 6:30 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. classes at Bates during their four-year apprenticeships. In classes, they learn to follow codes and blueprints.

The skilled workforce is aging: Half of Boeing engineers are eligible to retire by 2015, and two-thirds of the company’s entire workforce is within a decade of retirement age.

Despite high demand and high wages, young people don’t want to enter the trades unless they can earn a college degree, says Laura Hopkins, the program’s executive director. “We have to convince their counselors and teachers and parents as well that this is a good career opportunity for them and that if the economy shifts and their industry goes down, they can move on to something else with that college degree.”

Opportunity denied: No community college in town

Build a community college to revive the local economy, a consultant told Erie, Pennsylvania. But it didn’t happen, writes Mandy Zatynski, an Erie native, in an Education Sector report. Opportunity Denied: How One County Fought For, and Lost, a Community College  explains what happened.

Erie has four-year colleges and for-profit technical schools, but “neither provided the affordability and flexibility that many local residents needed,” Zatynski writes.

. . . more than any other factor, the college fell victim to outdated ideas about higher education and public reluctance to make short-term investments for longer term economic gain. The college was also damaged by the anti-tax mindset that gripped the nation at the height of the tea party movement, a conservative base that rallied against tax increases and government spending, no matter what the cause.

Once, International Paper would hire new workers out of high school, train them and enable them to earn a middle-class wage, Zatynski writes. The paper mill closed in 2001. Now Erie’s remaining employers want skilled workers with strong science, math, and analytical skills. A high school diploma is not enough.

“We need a higher level of technical expertise,” said Ralph Pontillo, president of the Manufacturer and Business Association in Erie. “You don’t run the machines anymore; you run the computers that run the machines.”

While healthcare and education are increasingly big employers in Erie, manufacturing remains the second-largest sector thanks in part to a large General Electric locomotive plant, which employs about 5,500. County planners predict that manufacturing jobs will grow by 2 percent between 2010 and 2040. But Pontillo says manufacturing shops are also facing an immediate demand: they need skilled workers now to replace longtime, retiring machinists. And despite the region’s 7.8 percent unemployment rate, they can’t find them. “The disconnect,” Pontillo says, “is that [workers] are not prepared to take on these positions, even the most basic positions.”

Erie County has 7,500 unfilled jobs because of the skills gap, leaders estimate.

High school graduation rates are higher than the state average in Erie and its suburbs, but fewer adults have completed a bachelor’s degree. “We have a high graduation rate and (a low) rate of people who attend postsecondary education. What does that tell you?” asks Erie County Executive Barry Grossman. “It’s the absence of a community college.”

The workforce development fantasy

President Obama focused on the workforce development mission of community colleges in his State of the Union Speech, calling on community colleges to train two million skilled workers for unfilled jobs.

The next day, Education Secretary Arne Duncan flew to Florida to praise job training programs at Tallahassee Community College.

Workforce development is the flavor of the month, writes Community College Dean. But it’s not as easy as politicians think to turn out skilled workers.

The most predictable lower-level workforce needs are actually the skills we expect students to pick up in their general education courses: effective communication, the ability to see the big picture, enough quantitative skill to know when an answer doesn’t sound right.  Those skills are evergreens, and like evergreens, they take time to grow.

There are always a few local employers who need workers who can be trained quickly, the dean writes. But those jobs get filled by the first or second cohort of trainees.

Many would-be workers need literacy or English as a Second Language classes. Community colleges’ developmental track is geared towards getting students into a degree program.  Adult Basic Education is a better fit, but often is underfunded and can’t meet the demand.

The dean’s advice:

If you want to improve the prospects of the local workforce, start with adult basic education, add short-term training programs, and beef up the classic academic offerings at community colleges for transfer. . . . Otherwise, you’ll just keep cycling people through training programs every few years, every time the economic winds shift.

The second word in “community college” is “college,” the dean points out. Community colleges are in danger of being defined purely as job training centers.

Making it in America

Manufacturing is coming back in the U.S., after a precipitous decline, writes Adam Davidson in Making It in America in the new Atlantic. However, manufacturing workers are divided between the highly skilled, who are in demand, and the quickly trained, who must work cheaply or be replaced by machines or Chinese labor.

Luke Hutchins, a machinist at Standard Motor Products’ plant in Greenville, South Carolina, left a four-year college to go to Spartanburg Community College. He wanted to study radiography, but the class was full. Told he could make more than $30 an hour running factory machines, he enrolled in Machine Tool Technology.

Unlike many community college students, Hutchins finds math easy. He studied algebra, trigonometry and calculus at Spartanburg.

“If you know calculus, you definitely can be a machine operator or programmer.” He was quite good at the programming language commonly used in manufacturing machines all over the country, and had a facility for three-dimensional visualization—seeing, in your mind, what’s happening inside the machine—a skill, probably innate, that is required for any great operator. It was a two-year program, but Luke was the only student with no factory experience or vocational school, so he spent two summers taking extra classes to catch up.

After six semesters studying machine tooling, including endless hours cutting metal in the school workshop, Luke, like almost everyone who graduates, got a job at a nearby factory, where he ran machines similar to the Gildemeisters. When Luke got hired at Standard, he had two years of technical schoolwork and five years of on-the-job experience, and it took one more month of training before he could be trusted alone with the Gildemeisters. All of which is to say that running an advanced, computer-controlled machine is extremely hard.

Luke checks every five minutes or so to make sure the machine is running “on spec.”  On a typical shift, he calibrates the machine 20 times.

The most common issue is that the cutting tool gradually wears down. As a result, Luke needs to tell the computer to move the tool a few microns closer, or make some other adjustment. If the operator programs the wrong number, the tool can cut right into the machine itself and destroy equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Luke wants to better understand the properties of cutting tools, he told me, so he can be even more effective. “I’m not one of the geniuses on that. I know a little bit. A lot of people go to school just to learn the properties of tooling.” He also wants to learn more about metallurgy, and he’s especially eager to study industrial electronics. He says he will keep learning for his entire career.

Before the rise of computer-run machines, one person ran a machine that performed one function. An untrained worker could start on the simplest machine and work his way up. “Few people went to school to learn how to work in a factory,” writes Davidson.

Maddie Parlier, a high school graduate, earns $13 an hour at a job that can be learned in a day. She doesn’t know trigonometry, calculus, metallurgy or the computer-programming language that runs the machines she operates. Standard doesn’t train workers like Maddie to become machinists like Luke. It takes too long, costs too much and might not work.

A robotic arm could do her job, but it would cost $100,000 and Standard invests only in machinery that will earn back its cost within two years. Maddie is cheaper than the machine — for now.

Joe Six-Pack needs education, skills

Demand is growing for blue-collar workers, but the good jobs require education and skills that few high school graduates can offer, writes Joel Kotkin in City Journal.  As baby-boom workers retire, employers worry about finding new workers who can run million-dollar machinery.

Even as overall manufacturing employment has dropped, employment in high-skill manufacturing professions has soared 37 percent since the early 1980s, according to a New York Federal Reserve study. These jobs can pay handsomely. An experienced machinist at Ariel Corporation (in Ohio) earns over $75,000, a very good wage in an area where you can buy a nice single-family house for less than $150,000.

A big reason for the demand is changes on the factory floor. At Ariel, (CEO Karen) Wright points out, the operator of a modern CNC (computer numerical control) machine, which programs repetitive tasks such as drilling, is running equipment that can cost over $5 million. A new hire in this position must have knowledge of programming, metallurgy, cutting-tool technology, geometry, drafting, and engineering. Today’s factory worker is less Joe Six-Pack and more Renaissance man.

Even the auto industry, which laid off 230,000 workers during the recession, will be trying — and struggling — to find skilled workers, predicts David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. The industry will need more than 100,000 new workers by 2013, Cole says and “will start running out of people with the proper skills as early as next year.”

A 2005 study by Deloitte Consulting found that 80 percent of manufacturers expected a shortage of skilled production workers, more than twice the percentage that expected a lack of scientists and engineers and five times the percentage that expected a lack of managerial and administration workers.

Vocational education has declined as nearly all counselors — and parents — tell high school students to aim for a bachelor’s degree, employers complain.  “Kids . . .  don’t realize a pipe fitter makes three times as much as a social worker,” says Jeff Kirk, manager of human relations at Kaiser Aluminum’s plant in Heath, Ohio.

Some high schools are now working with industry to train students for high-wage industrial jobs, writes Kotkin, citing Houston’s Academy for Petroleum Exploration and Production Technology.

Technical and community colleges also are designing programs for adults who need high-value job skills in a hurry.

. . . Central Ohio Technical College, has recently expanded by 70 welding students and 50 aspiring machinists per year. Many of the college’s certificate programs are designed and partly funded by companies, which figure that they’re making a wise investment.

There are many examples. I wasn’t surprised to see two technical colleges — in Kentucky and South Dakota — were runners-up for the Aspen Prize this year.

Manufacturers need more skilled workers

U.S. manufacturers are seeking skilled workers, leaving jobs open for months, reports Reuters.

Technology giant Siemens Corp., the U.S. arm of Germany’s Siemens AG , has over 3,000 jobs open all over the country. More than half require science, technology, engineering and math-related skills.

Despite the high unemployment rate, “it’s very difficult to find skilled people,” said Jeff Owens, president of ATS, a manufacturing consulting services company with 200 open positions.

Most open jobs are for skilled trades workers, information technology professionals, engineers, sales reps and machine operators.

Many college graduates lack the science and math skills to fill manufacturing jobs, said Dennis Bray, president and CEO of Contour Precision Group. The South Carolina company has been looking for six technicians since last year.

Businesses are pushing for visas to import more high-skilled foreigners.

Repetitive, semi-skilled jobs have been computerized or shipped overseas.  Most laid-off workers will not be recalled, unless they’ve upgraded their skills significantly.

“The old jobs are not coming back. We need to invest in education and training to get people prepared to fill these high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future,” said Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens Corp.

The new jobs pay quite well: Workers can start at $30 an hour. Engineers earn $75,000 to $100,000 a year. Siemens is offering an average of  $89,000 a year for its unfilled positions.

Both Siemens and ATS are training military veterans for skilled manufacturing jobs.

“We have found that veterans have extensive technical training and experience that they gain through military service, and these skills are extremely valuable to us and match up well with many of our over 3,000 open positions,” Spiegel said.

Industry leaders also are partnering with colleges to update vocational training. However, community colleges don’t enroll many students with the math skills needed for advanced manufacturing.



Employers complain, but don’t train

Employers complain they can’t find skilled workers, but they’re demanding too much and refusing to train new workers, Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources.

To get America’s job engine revving again, companies need to stop pinning so much of the blame on our nation’s education system. They need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice.

Half of employers surveyed by Manpower say they have difficulty finding skilled workers. That’s because they want experienced workers with exactly the right skill set, Cappelli writes.


Notice the shortage of skilled tradesmen, sales reps, drivers, admins and machinists on the Manpower survey. These are jobs that typically don’t require  bachelor’s degree.

Employers should work with colleges to ensure that job candidates developed needed skills, Cappelli writes.

Community colleges in many states, especially North Carolina, have proved to be good partners with employers by tailoring very applied course work to the specific needs of the employer.

Candidates qualify to be hired once they complete the courses—which they pay for themselves, at least in part. For instance, a manufacturer might require that prospective job candidates first pass a course on quality control or using certain machine tools.

Employers also can create apprenticeships, when possible, or longer probationary periods for novices to get up to speed, he suggests.

In Capelli’s follow-up — he got tons of mail — he concedes there’s a shortage of  information technology graduates with skills in mobile devices and data mining. That’s because students choosing majors four years ago didn’t anticipate the mobile boom.  “We cannot expect schools and students to guess what skills employers will need,” Cappelli writes. “Employers have to do more.”


Manufacturers seek skilled workers

Manufacturers are looking for skilled or trainable workers in high schools, community colleges and the military, writes James Hagerty in the Wall Street Journal.

After years of decline, the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs is growing while baby boomers are retiring. But employers aren’t willing to hire workers who lack “the math and science skills needed to operate and repair sophisticated computer-controlled factory equipment.”  Although skilled manufacturing jobs often pay $50,000 to $80,000 a year, plus benefits, “parents and guidance counselors discourage bright kids from even considering careers in manufacturing.”

Hamill Manufacturing near Pittsburgh works with nearby vocational schools to find new workers.

One morning in late April, Trent Thompson, a 20-year-old Hamill apprentice wearing shredded jeans and a black baseball cap, was assigned to drill three holes in a piece of carbon steel about the size and shape of a hockey puck. To make sure he was spacing the holes exactly right, he scrawled a triangle and some trigonometric calculations on a notepad. Even a tiny error would mean wasting about $400 of metal.

In another corner of the factory, Bill Schaltenbrand, 59, was cutting bigger, more complicated parts. A computer had worked out where he should drill and cut, but Mr. Schaltenbrand, a 40-year veteran at Hamill, does his own math to double-check the plans. Computers, he says, sometimes “punch out stupid stuff.” Part of Mr. Schaltenbrand’s skill is reading blueprints with myriad numbers and symbols that would baffle most people.

 Bayer AG can’t fill chemical-process technology jobs at its plastics plant in Baytown, Texas, near Houston. Few applicants are qualified.  

“This place is five acres, and it’s three stories tall,” says Donny Simon, 55, who has worked in the plant since 1988. It takes time to understand how all the pipes, valves, pumps and feedstock tanks work together and how to avoid explosions or other accidents. Technicians need basic math and science for such tasks as calculating the rate at which dyes and stabilizing agents need to be added for specially ordered batches of plastics.

Because it can’t find enough candidates with relevant experience, Bayer this summer will for the first time hire interns to learn how to operate machinery at the Baytown plant. It plans to offer $18 to $23 an hour—unusually good pay for summer jobs—and to choose among students in “process technology” at local community colleges. Those who do well are likely to be offered permanent jobs.

Colorado-based Woodward, Inc., which makes parts for aircraft and power-generation equipment, closed its training academy in the late ’90s.  Now the company is paying tuition and other costs for two dozen manufacturing students at Illinois community colleges near a Woodward factory.  Students also are paid for 20 hours of work per week.  Once they earn two-year degrees, maintaining a 3.0 average, they’ll be offered jobs starting at $25,000 to $48,000 a year.

Some companies are outsourcing maintenance to Advanced Technology Services Inc. of Peoria, Ill. ATS is doubling its size. The company likes to hire military veterans with experience fixing machinery. ATS also funds students in 40-week  community-college training programs and engineering scholarships at universities.

Jobs, jobs, jobs — and education

In Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Achieve looks at the gap between job demands and entry-level workers’ skills.

Many jobs that used to require only a high school diploma or less –- manufacturing technicians, auto mechanics, electricians and others –- now typically require some postsecondary education or certification. In addition, a quarter of American workers are now in jobs that were not even listed in the Census Bureau’s occupation codes 40 years ago.

. . . For a state or community to attract new, high-skilled industries, they need high-skilled employees – or employees who are adaptable learners with strong foundational knowledge and skills that will serve them across industries.

Unfortunately, many young people aren’t ready for college or careers. A third don’t complete high school on time; a third require remediation at two- or four-year colleges. Only a quarter of employers of recent high school graduates believe young employees are prepared for the job for which they were hired.

Despite a national unemployment rate that remains around 10%, there are about 3 million job openings across the country that cannot be filled because of a lack of skilled workers.

States need to build career and technical pathways, encourage partnerships between K-12, higher education, and the business community, and collaborate with other states on cost-effective measures, Achieve recommends.