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2011 June 27 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Mix and Match

AP Photo

President Obama touted the Skills for America’s Future initiative during an appearance at Northern Virginia Community College.

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Mix and Match

New Initiative Enlists Colleges To Close Skills Gaps

By Paul Bradley

It’s the mismatch confronting and confounding policymakers and educators trying to accelerate the country’s slow climb out of economic recession.

Even as unemployment exceeds 9 percent, thousands of jobs are going unfilled.

A daunting workforce skills gap has left legions of Americans out of work, companies scrambling to find qualified workers and executives and political leaders fretting openly about a skills crisis.

Now, an initiative with the imprimatur of President Barack Obama has turned to community colleges to help close those gaps through a national network of partnerships with employers and businesses.

Obama traveled across the Potomac River to the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College to tout the expansion of Skills for America’s Future, an industry-led initiative that was announced during Obama’s White House Community College Summit last October.

The Skills initiative, spearheaded by the nonprofit Aspen Institute, aims to link industry with community colleges to train workers in emerging fields. Among the institute’s goals is to develop a national network of partnerships between employers, labor unions and community colleges to identify solutions to the skills gap and apply them across the country.

The first part of the initiative aims to prepare 500,000 community college students for careers in manufacturing, where an aging workforce and rapid technical advances are contributing to a large and growing skills gap.

“The irony is even though a lot of folks are looking for work, there are a lot of companies that are actually also looking for skilled workers,” Obama said. “There’s a mismatch that we can close.And this partnership is a great way to do it.”

National Certification

The initiative will develop a curriculum, based on the National Association of Manufacturers’ advanced manufacturing skills certification system, which will be implemented at community colleges in 30 states. Credentials earned by students would not be an alternative to a two-year associate degree, but rather would equip students with the skills they need to get a good job and help employers fully understand what skills students possess.

A welding student, for example, would be able to leave a community college with a certificate that employers in shipbuilding or automobile manufacturing could recognize as a proof of the graduate’s skill set.

“That’s a skill that’s in high demand right now,” said Ron Blum, assistant to the president for manufacturing policy, said in a conference call with reporters. “These skills are cross-cutting in all kinds of places across the manufacturing economy.”

Said Obama: “So if you’re a company looking to hire, you’ll know exactly what kind of training went into a specific degree. If you’re considering attending a community college, you’ll be able to know that the diploma you earn will be valuable when you hit the job market.”

The skills mismatch has frustrated policy makers trying to speed the country’s post-recession economic recovery. In March, manufacturers reported 230,000 open jobs, officials said, even as unemployment remained stubbornly high. Though the country has experienced a steep decline in manufacturing employment for more than a decade, more than 11 million Americans work in the manufacturing sector, which still serves as the backbone of communities and families across the country. Administration officials predict that another 2.7 million manufacturing workers will be needed in the next decade as employees who are 55 or older leave the workforce.

But the skill set the new workers will need is changing, largely due to technological advances, and the new initiative addresses that challenge.

The Skills initiative has also forged a partnership with Discovery Communications to publicize and promote college-industry partnerships. Discovery will develop “Discover Your Skills,” a multimedia initiative to raise awareness of career pathways and promote improved access to the new educational opportunities.

As a leading provider of broadband education content and services to American public schools, Discovery is well-positioned to spotlight information on career opportunities in skilled trades and how to obtain the training to pursue them, said Penny Pritzker, chair of the advisory board for Skills for America’s Future.

“With our manufacturing industry facing a skills gap, there was a clear need to bring together the work of NAM’s Manufacturing Institute to train students, Discovery Communications’ ability to raise awareness and Skills for America’s Future,” she said. “Together, we will train American workers for the advanced manufacturing jobs and offer them the resources to obtain good paying jobs today and in the future.”

Nick Pinchuk, chairman and CEO of Snap-on Inc. and a member of the Skills for America’s Future advisory board, said, “Skills for America’s Future is exactly what we need to make sure America has a 21st century workforce that is equipped with the capabilities necessary to be successful, to get ahead, and to drive a competitive economy in the challenges of a global marketplace.”

Lighting a Spark

Obama said the initiative will aid students and businesses alike.

“Right now, there are people across America with talents just waiting to be tapped, sparks waiting to be lit,” he said. “Our job is to light them. And there’s no time to lose when we’ve got folks looking for work, when we’ve got companies that need to stay competitive in this 21st-century economy.”

Many similar initiatives already exist at community colleges as institutions work in their communities to meet local needs. The Skills initiative represents an effort to bring successful local efforts to a national scale.

In May, the Skills initiative received a commitment from UPS, the country’s largest package delivery company. UPS has pledged to create a new Workforce Advisory Board to expand career options for community college students and improve job placement rates. Other companies involved in the initiative include Accenture, Gap Inc., United Technology Corporation (UTC) and Pacific Gas & Electric.

The PG&E partnership is being touted as a model that other companies can follow. The power company works with California community colleges to develop curriculum and create a talent pool of qualified candidates for entry-level skilled jobs in areas such as clean tech vehicles, energy efficiency and skilled crafts. PG&E will provide $1.5 million of in-kind support for each of the next three years as part of the Skills initiative.

“Partnerships between employers and community colleges are a win for students, a win for businesses, and a win for our economy,” Pritzker said. “Skills for America’s Future will continue to help build similar, high-impact partnerships across the country.”

The Obama administration plans to spend $2 billion over the next several years to develop certifications for a variety of jobs needed in the manufacturing sector. The commitment comes at a time when community colleges across the country face steep budget cuts as states try to close deficits.

Obama said spending on community colleges should be considered a critical investment in the future.

“It’s possible that we could choose not to do the things that I just talked about,” he said. “We could choose not to make investments in clean energy or let tuition prices rise and force more Americans to give up on the American Dream. We could choose to walk away from our community college system.”

“But I want to make it clear, that’s not our history.That’s not who we are. I don’t accept that future for the United States of America. I see a United States where this nation is able to out-compete every country on Earth, where we continue to be the world’s engine for innovation and discovery. I see a future where we train workers who make things here in the United States, and continue a important and honorable tradition of folks working with their hands, creating value, not just shuffling paper.”

It’s YOUR TURN.  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: Are business partnerships the best way to close the skills gap afflicting the American economy?
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