Closing the skills gap

With nearly 11 million Americans out of work — and 4 million unfilled jobs —  closing the skills gap is a priority write Jamie Dimon, president of JPMorgan Chase, and Marlene Seltzer, who runs Jobs for the Future, in Politico.

“Middle-skill” workers such as machinists, technicians and health care workers are in demand, they write. These jobs require job training and sometimes an associate degree, but not a bachelor’s degree.

Dimon’s company has launched New Skills at Work, which will analyze skills gaps in major U.S. cities — and in Europe. “These gap reports will then inform the allocation of $250 million in grants over five years to support non-profits like Jobs for the Future that have a track record of designing successful skill-development programs.”

Career tech education is gaining momentum in high schools, reports Ed Week‘s CollegeBound.

The new Mississippi Scholars Tech Master program will recognize high school seniors who pass a career-certification test, maintain a 2.5 grade point average, score 18 of higher on the ACT, and complete 40 hours of community service. An existing program honors college-prep students.

Oregon will spend more on vocational programs in middle and high schools. The emphasis is on developing skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed increased support for career and technical schools to train more STEM-skilled workers.

3 million jobs, but who’s qualified?

There are 3 million open jobs in U.S. because workers lack skills, reports 60 Minutes.

With a solid basic education, people could learn vocational skills, writes Marc Tucker in Ed Week.  Instead, people are leaving high school and college without the ability to ” read complex material, write clear expository prose, analyze problems and solve them” and use high school-level math.

A Nevada company called Click Bond needs workers who can program computer-controlled machines, fix them and ensure fasteners are made to precise specifications.

They are having a very hard time finding people who “read, write, do math, problem solve,” says Ryan Costella. “I can’t tell you how many people even coming out of higher ed with degrees who can’t put a sentence together without a major grammatical error…If you can’t do the resume properly to get the job, you can’t come work for us. We’re in the business of making fasters that hold systems together that protect people in the air when they’re flying. We’re in the business of perfection.”

. . . Click Bond, desperate for help, banded together with other employers to set up a program at the local community college. They took unemployed people—and Nevada has a very large supply of such people—tested them for aptitude, interviewed them for attitude, and then trained them for the work that was available. The students were taught to operate the computers, read blueprints, learn trigonometry to make precise measurements—all in sixteen weeks.

But it cost $60,000 to train 20 workers.

Education requirements are climbing, say many employers. In the future, an administrative assistant probably will need an associate degree.

 

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.

Skills gap is small, but growing

The “skills gap” is no big deal now — but it could be in the future, if we don’t take steps to train new workers, writes Harold Sirkin, a Boston Consulting Group partner, in Businessweek.

The shortage of skilled welders, machinists, and industrial machinery mechanics represents less than 1 percent of U.S. manufacturing workers, Sirkin estimates.  Only seven states and five cities – Baton Rouge, Charlotte, Miami, San Antonio, and Wichita — have significant shortages.

However, that could change in the next 10 years as manufacturing grows and baby boomers retire. The average high-skilled manufacturing worker in the U.S. is 56 years old, according to government data.

Technical and community colleges are working with employers to train workers in some parts of the country,  Sirkin writes.

In Georgia, for example, a program called Quick Start provides companies with customized workforce training and retraining, free of charge, in partnership with the state’s technical colleges.

Here in Chicago, the Austin Polytechnical Academy teaches students all aspects of industry and has its own manufacturing training center.

“Most high-skill manufacturing jobs require only a high school education and on-the-job training,” yet few companies recruit in high schools, Sirkin writes. And manufacturing doesn’t appeal to young people seeking bachelor’s degrees, even though half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

The question we need to ask bright young people today is this: Would they be better off with a college degree in mass communication, “poli sci,” or sociology that gets them a job as a retail clerk or waiting tables, or would they be better off with a real skill that qualifies them for a high-paying manufacturing job?

After years of high unemployment and rising college costs, students are wising up about borrowing for a degree in what we used to call “fuzzy studies.” But advanced manufacturing — and other technical careers — may not be open to students with weak math and science skills.

Tell students there’s a 3rd track to success

A high school diploma isn’t enough to qualify for a decent job, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs a bachelor’s degree to earn a living, writes Thomas Snyder, president of Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College. Students need to know there’s a third track to job opportunities: Earn a vocational certificate or associate degree at a low-cost community college.

In 2010-11, entry-level workers with an associate degree earned more than those with a recent bachelor’s degree in 38 of 92 Indiana counties, he writes. (That’s because associate degrees in nursing and other health fields pay quite well immediately.)

Community colleges, affordable and open to all, offer “our best chance of improving the skills of a critical mass of U.S. workers,” Snyder writes. Young people need to understand their full range of options.

A more diverse population will see higher education as within their reach. More employment candidates will emerge, leading to greater economic growth. Our economy will benefit further from lower levels of student debt and higher earnings. Best of all, we will give middle class families hope for a brighter future even when the four-year residential college experience is impractical or out of their reach.

“Two-track vision” isn’t enough to close the skills gap, Snyder concludes.

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 skills gap

Despite high unemployment, some employers can’t find skilled workers, AP reports.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — John Russo’s chemical lab in North Kingstown has been growing in recent years, even despite a deflated economy, and he expects to add another 15 to 20 positions to his 49 employees over the next year.

But the president of Ultra Scientific Analytical Solutions has found himself in a vexing spot, struggling to fill openings that require specialized training in a state where the jobless rate is close to 11 percent, the third-highest in the nation.

“It’s very difficult to find the right person, and there’s all walks of life trying to find jobs. I honestly think there’s a large swath of unemployable,” said Russo, whose firm manufactures and supplies analytical standards. “They don’t have any skills at all.”

The skills gap is a national issue.

Several states have created “lifelong learning accounts” to help workers save for education and training. Michigan’s  “No Worker Left Behind” initiative offers up to $10,000 for  unemployed or low-wage workers to train for jobs at community colleges.

Rhode Island is trying to move from low-tech, low-skill manufacturing and service jobs to a “knowledge” economy centered on IT and life sciences, AP reports. Downtown Providence’s Jewelry District has been rebranded the “Knowledge District.” But it doesn’t have knowledge-intensive jobs or well-educated workers.

For every 100 Rhode Islanders who start high school, 73 will graduate, a hair over the national average. Of those 73, 40 will enter college and 21 will earn a degree. Community College of Rhode Island‘s on-time graduation is only 9.8 percent; the vast majority of new students require remedial courses.

“If we don’t address this skills problem, American businesses will lack the world-class work force needed to compete at a global level, and many Americans will remain out of work, instead of accessing the high quality jobs of today and tomorrow,” said Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive who is advisory board chair of the Aspen Institute’s skills gap campaign.

Ultra Scientific finally found someone to operate a machine that performs high-pressure liquid chromatography. Russo hired a Ph.D. from Thermo Fisher Scientific, which is shuttering its manufacturing facility in east Providence.