Beyond the skills gap

Job training has moved from employers to colleges — especially community colleges — writes New America Foundation’s Mary Alice McCarthy. The “skills gap” is a policy gap, she concludes.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) needs to be reframed to “support all forms of postsecondary learning, including students on non-degree paths and those seeking specific skills and credentials,” McCarthy writes in Beyond the Skills Gap: Making Education Work for Students, Employers, and Communities.

We are already paying a high price for our failure to support students in these programs – high debt levels, poor employment outcomes, wasted taxpayer dollars, and employers who still struggle to find workers with the right skills. . . . we know a lot about what makes postsecondary career education work – industry partnerships, structured learning pathways, contextualized instruction, and stackable credentials. Now we need to build the federal, state, and institutional policies to support those practices.

As an example, she looks at a Michigan woman who wants to qualify as a medical assistant, a growing field that can be a first step to nursing and other health careers. She faces a baffling array of choices.

In eastern Michigan, the for-profit Everest Institute’s 10-month medical assistant certificate program costs about $20,000. Career Quest Learning Center in Lansing charges $15,000 for an eight-month program. Federal student grants and loans will help cover the cost of her tuition and related expenses.

In the western part of the state, Grand Rapids Community College offers a six-month certificate program that costs only $7,585, but it is “noncredit.” That means she’s not eligible for federal Pell grants or student loans and can’t use her training as the first step toward an associate degree.

Kalamazoo Valley Community College‘s certificate program only costs about $4,000. Students can get state and federal grants and loans. “But there is most likely a waiting list, so she will probably need to wait a semester or two,” writes McCarthy. “In addition, she will have to pass the course placement exams to be admitted or complete remedial courses until she can bring her scores up enough to be allowed to enroll.”

Or perhaps she could consider the 20 schools in Michigan that offer associate degrees in medical assisting at varying costs.

All this for a job with an average annual salary in Michigan of $27,000 – or about $13 an hour.

More than half of undergraduate credentials are in career education, writes McCarthy. Thirty-three percent are vocational certificates and 20 percent are occupationally focused associate degrees. These days, “more than 500 institutions of higher education offer undergraduate certificates in welding technology for which you can get a Pell grant or federal student loan.”

But it’s hard for vocational students to move to academic tracks. Their credits aren’t “stackable.” And it’s easy for colleges to “deliver expensive, low-quality career education programs,” she writes.

Most short-term training programs aren’t eligible for federal aid.

For example, a short-term certificate in phlebotomy may help a student get a job and earn credits toward a certificate in medical assisting, which in turn, can be applied toward an associate degree in nursing, and up to a bachelor’s degree in nursing. But if the first and lowest step on the ladder is not eligible for financial aid, some students will not be able to reach it.

Adults must have a high school credential to be eligible for federal aid, regardless of their skills. That’s a huge barrier for many low-income adults, she writes.

Student aid funds most job training

Most federal support for job training flows through student aid, not workforce development programs, writes Mary Alice McCarthy on EdCentral. Federal student aid provides $150 billion a year to college students in vocational certificate and associate degree programs, while only $20 billion goes to all federal workforce programs.

Nursing students at Cuyahoga Community College train on a mannequin named "Steve."

Nursing students at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland train on a mannequin named “Steve.”

Ready to Work: Job-Driven Training and American Opportunity and What Works in Job Training: A Synthesis of the Evidence, both released by the vice president’s office on July 22, lay out the federal workforce development system.

While there are 47 employment and training programs implemented across ten federal agencies, most federal funds  come from four agencies and a few programs, McCarthy writes. Including the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, $18 billion is spent by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (CTE), and military tuition assistance programs financed through the Departments of Defense and Veteran’s Affairs.

These days, community college is “where people go to get skills for work,” she writes. Yet there’s “minimal accountability” for the large and growing share of federal student aid for college students in job-training programs. Many programs don’t fit the administration’s call for “job-driven” training designed with employers to fill high-demand jobs.

Federal student aid “is oddly exempt from national discussions about how to improve America’s job training programs. Until those dollars are truly on the table, we’re not talking about the federal policies that can really make a difference in connecting postsecondary education and work.”

Job training is very hard to do well outside the workplace. . . . Engaging employers, identifying in-demand skills, accelerating learning, designing programs to meet diverse and non-traditional learners, providing effective student supports – it all works and it’s all hard.

Job training can’t do it all, writes McCarthy. “Globalization and technological change are transforming production processes and disrupting labor markets around the world, generating profound changes in how firms hire, compensate, and train employees.”

On the education front, we need policies that will make schools – particularly institutions of higher education – more responsive to the needs of students for concrete skills and transparent credentials. On the employer front, we need policies that promote firms to either invest directly in the skill development of employees (apprenticeship programs, on-the-job training) or that enable their workers to more easily combine work and learning (better leave policies, tuition assistance, etc). Policies also need to recognize that people will be moving in and out of jobs more often, and will need support for up-skilling and periodic bouts of unemployment.

And, “it doesn’t matter how good your job training programs are if there aren’t enough jobs to go around.”

How to make students employable

To make students more employable, community colleges must engage with industry and take “a hard look at what the job market is telling them,” writes James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan. He co-chaired the American Association of Community Colleges’ Implementation Team 5, which worked on closing the nation’s skills gap.  

Community colleges should develop close ties with local industries, the team recommends. That includes researching industry trends, hiring “instructors from the industries — who can bring with them not just experience but also contacts — and maintaining ties with students who land jobs in these industries.” 

Many businesses “value credentials designed to indicate mastery of a particular skill or subject matter as much as or more than a formal degree,” the team found.

At Michigan’s Macomb Community College (MCC), where I serve as president, we feature a production operator program that provides students with a basic orientation to manufacturing work, teaching the skills they need to obtain a job in the field. After students complete our program and secure an entry-level position, they are invited back to MCC to take for-credit classes focused on specific skill sets, all of this dependent on the needs of their employer.

“The days of comprehensive community colleges that offer a vast number of options are drawing to a close,” writes Jacobs. “Instead, community college should offer fewer options based on the needs of local and regional labor markets.”

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.”

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.”