Think Globally, Hire and Train Locally

When I last wrote about the growing skills gap in the American workforce (see Why Obama’s Free Community College Plan is a GREAT Idea), I referred to the Harvard Business Review article Who Can Fix the ‘Middle-Skills’ Gap? and how what the authors were calling for, a kind of patchwork quilt of efforts that would require a high level of cooperation between business leaders, unions, and educational institutions sounded tantamount to herding cats. I may have judged those ideas a little too quickly. There are signs and examples that those approaches really can work. There are good examples to study at the local, regional, and national levels.

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Starting at the local level in Tampa Bay, Florida, is the Tampa Bay Technology Forum’s Grow Tampa Bay Tech program. The situation there has been grim with 4,000 IT jobs unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers, and that number is only expected to rise in the next several years, possibly doubling. The program partners tech businesses with the area’s educational institutions that teach the needed skills. The results are expanded internship opportunities and training programs that include practice labs that serve to bridge the educational setting with the business environment, all of which will put more people into the job market that have the needed skills.

At the regional level, back in 1988 Boeing had the foresight to work with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) to aside 14 cents per work hour in union contracts to fund joint training programs. In 2009, the state of Washington and several community colleges from around the region joined the effort to form the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC). They’ve established what the certification standards and curricula should be various categories of workers. Throughout the region, Boeing gets all the machinists, tool-and-die workers, computer technicians, and other skilled workers it needs.

At the national level there can be cooperative training programs like those started by the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD) back in 2006 to address the utility industry’s upcoming retirement epidemic. CEWD is a consortium of organizations that include companies from the nuclear, electricity, and natural gas sectors, trade associations, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Participating companies say they’re feeling much more confident about being able to fill upcoming vacancies in a wide range of skilled positions.

Part of what’s happening here is trying to revive apprenticeships. Once upon a time that was the primary way a person learned what would be their life’s vocation. When labor unions came along, they promoted apprenticeship programs pretty aggressively. But as unions have increasingly faded to the back burner, so have apprenticeship programs. A mere 7% of the private sector workforce is unionized (12% overall), and apprenticeship programs have declined by 36% since the late 1990s. Meanwhile, among those graduating from the nation’s colleges and universities, only 15% have majored in a STEM area – science, technology, engineering, and math – a number that has budged in a couple decades. All these forces have played a part in coming together to widen the skills gap to a point where companies are being forced to get creative in filling their needs for skilled workers.

The kinds of cooperative programs mentioned above are a great start towards shrinking the skills gap. Obama’s free community college idea can help as well, especially since community colleges tend to be more focused on vocational education and skills than four-year schools, who keep churning out liberal arts majors even thought that’s not what’s needed as much in the workforce today. These sorts of efforts do take tame to develop, and some entity has to take the lead in getting things starting and keeping it going, but the long-term potential payoff is well worth the effort.

February 2, 2015   Updated :March 17, 2015   skills, skills gap, training   

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