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(From left) Ray Suarez, PBS; Jim Ryan, Grainger; Yonnie Leung, Pacific Gas & Electric; Peter Cappelli, University of Pennsylvania; and Bryan Albrecht, Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin
Photo: Matthew Dembicki
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When it comes to bridging the gap between available workers and available jobs, one thing is certain: it’s complicated.
“What the problem is depends on who you ask,” said Ray Suarez, a senior correspondent at PBS who moderated a panel on Wednesday that kicked off an afternoon of roundtables that included leaders from community colleges, business and industry, government and other stakeholders.
Suarez noted some parties blame K-12 for not instilling the right academic skills in students, while others point at employers, who have pulled away from providing training for their workers. Another faction cites higher education for not analyzing more closely the specific workforce needs in their communities.
The panelists agreed that it’s a mix of all the above. Jim Ryan, president and CEO of Grainger, said companies used to provide the training to upgrade their workers' skills. That’s now a dying practice.
However, it’s crucial for businesses to find ways to ensure that their workers are upgrading their skills in order to be competitive, Ryan said. Not filling available positions costs companies in the long run through overtime and other related expenses. Add impending retirements to the mix and the problem magnifies.
“This is a matter of competitive survival,” Ryan said.
For companies such as Grainger, part of the solution has been to work more closely with community colleges. To foster more interest in technical jobs and to develop a pipeline of skilled workers—for its own workforce as well as for its suppliers and vendors—Grainger runs a scholarship program and sponsors Trades in Focus, an initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges to raise awareness of career opportunities in the industrial trades.
What exactly is needed?
Community colleges also must do a better job of working with local businesses and industry to determine what skills are needed for available jobs, said Bryan Albrecht, president of Gateway Technical College (GTC) in Wisconsin. That means maintaining a constant dialogue to ensure colleges can adjust their curricula and training programs.
Often, there is a communication breakdown between colleges, employers and job seekers, Albrecht said. Companies indicate they need entry-level workers, but what that means varies among companies, he said. One company may be looking for employees with good soft skills and a degree, while another company may be looking for industry certification and several years of work experience.
People looking for work also get confused. A laid-off machinist may wonder why he or she can't get a job as a machinist with a manufacturer in a neighboring town, but they may not know what upgraded skills are required for that job or how to acquire them, Albrecht said.
Yonnie Leung, senior manager for workforce development at Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), said that managers responsible for hiring employees must get involved with colleges to convey what they need in a workforce. She gave this analogy: “You can’t expect your vendors to provide you a product without them knowing what the specs are.”
In 2008, PG&E created a training program in connection with community colleges, universities, workforce training boards and other organizations to provide training for entry-level jobs. About 71 percent of graduates from the program find work either at PG&E or in the industry as utility workers, apprentice electricians, gas service representatives, materials handlers and underground technicians.
As with Grainger, providing the training is crucial for PG&E—42 percent of its workforce (about 10,000 workers) is at retirement age or approaching it, Leung said. And it’s not just an issue for PG&E. By 2015, nearly half of the utility industry’s skilled workforce will need to be replaced because of retirement or attrition.
Bringing in K-12
Better connections with K-12 were also discussed. A concern for many businesses is the lack of presenting vocational and technical jobs as viable careers. Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania, said schools have been on a downward track over the last 20 years in providing students with opportunities to learn about technical careers. He noted that highly praised programs created in the 1990s, such as school-to-work initiatives, sputtered out by the end of the decade and have not returned. At the time, there was an assumption that the jobs of the future would require higher degrees and trade jobs would fade away or be sent overseas.
"We made some policy mistakes," Cappelli said.
However, there are movements across the U.S. to tie K-12 with trade careers. Many community colleges have stepped up to help prepare high school students for college-level work and to think about careers through programs such as dual enrollment and career academies, which often include the trades, Albrecht said.
The panel and following roundtables were the first event of the Partnership in Practice discussion series. It was sponsored by Grainger and the Aspen Institute.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges