Closing the skills gap through work-based learning

Panelist Kelli Jordan (right) of IBM answers questions following her presentation at a session on work-based learning at the AACC Workforce Development Institute. (Photos: Ellie Ashford)

NEW ORLEANS — If business and industry are able to address the shortage of “middle-skills” jobs, collaboration with community colleges is necessary to ensure new employees have the right skills.

Leaders from the corporate education world outlined their needs and how they are working with community colleges during at session at the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) annual Workforce Development Institute.

Kelli Jordan, talent leader for New Collar initiatives at IBM, described the magnitude of the skills gap: There are 500,000 unfilled jobs in the U.S. Only 43 percent of Americans are trained for “middle-skills jobs.” And available jobs will continue to grow. By 2022, for example, the nation is projected to have 1.8 million open positions in cybersecurity.

One way IBM is addressing the skills mismatch is through the P-Tech program, a partnership of high schools, community colleges and business sponsors. Students at participating high schools attend work-based learning opportunities in information technology and can earn an associate degree by the time they complete high school. Since P-Tech started in 2011, it has grown to more than 100 schools worldwide.

Providing resources

IBM’s new effort, Community College Skills Accelerator, offers free access to IBM software and tools so students can learn industry-relevant skills. Subject-matter experts partner with faculty to strengthen curriculum. The program offers faculty free access to open-source resources on IBM’s cloud, including information about the skills needed for various jobs in information technology.

IBM created its first apprenticeship program in October, has 14 apprentices on board now and hopes to hire at least 100 apprentices in 2018, for such jobs as software engineer, talent acquisition specialist, mainframe administrator, associate project manager and data analyst. Jordan calls this effort “a great opportunity for IBM to think differently about how we can get our talent.”

The apprenticeship program is part of IBM’s New Collar initiative, which Jordan says, “is about connecting people to opportunities, through new partnerships and new ways of working.” The focus is on skills, not degrees.

Investing in education

Lockheed Martin is expanding its investment in workforce education and shifting from a focus on a four-year university education to skills training at community colleges, said Jon Gustafson, director of workforce partnerships and incentives. That helps the company reach a more diverse population as well as those who can’t afford a four-year degree, Gustafson said.

Lockheed Martin is looking at new, innovative models, such as competency-based programs, and plans to hire more apprentices, he noted.

To fill the talent pipeline for the Orion spacecraft project at the Kennedy Space Center, Lockheed Martin is developing an apprenticeship program in aerospace technology with Eastern Florida State College.

It is also partnering with Tarrant County College in Texas to train workers in aerospace manufacturing for the F-35 military aircraft. The company brought college faculty onsite to learn about the project and incorporates workplace readiness skills and safety into the training. Tarrant has a “virtual factory floor” that mimics the manufacturing environment.

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Gustafson advised community colleges to approach businesses “with the mindset that you are trying to understand their challenges and want to be a partner to help them solve those challenges.”

While many community colleges already have great workforce programs, the public generally doesn’t know about them, he said. He called for colleges to do more to market themselves to students and their parents and to help them understand that community colleges are “well positioned to provide an avenue to a good job” and a successful career.

On-ramps to careers

SkillsUSA promotes work-based learning through career readiness, work-based experiences and local, state and national technical skills competitions. It’s a professional leadership organization, built by and led by students that prepares students to thrive in skilled careers, said Executive Director Timothy Lawrence. SkillsUSA is in 4,000 schools, has 600 business partners and provides an on-ramp to community colleges and apprenticeships in 130 occupations in 14 career clusters.

Panelist Timothy Lawrence (right), executive director of SkillsUSA, answers questions following a session on work-based learning.

A key aspect is the inclusion of personal and workplace skills, such as teamwork, time management and work ethic, said Lawrence, along with technical skills grounded in academics.

Students who participate in SkillsUSA have a 98 percent high school graduation rate, compared to a national rate of 81 percent, Lawrence said. They also have an 87 percent postsecondary education graduation rate, compared to a national rate of 54 percent.

Among other positive results: 63 percent of former SkillsUSA participants stay in the same career field because they’ve developed a passion for it, he said. Seventy-four percent said SkillsUSA had a very significant impact on their success, and 83 percent said the program helped them advance in their career.

The right skills

Lincoln Electric Co., a manufacturer of welding products, “gets calls every single day” from people who need skilled welders, said Jason Scales, its education business manager. One shipbuilding company wanted to hire 10,000 welders, for example.

According to Scales, “We’ve all heard this: Those kids coming out of high school know how to weld. They just can’t weld the way the company wants them to weld.”

Different companies need people with specialized skills in welding, he said. The skills needed by someone building a power plant is different from the skills needed by workers in automobile manufacturing, for example.

Panelist Jason Scales of the Lincoln Electric Co. (right) speaks with Naomi DeWinter, president of Muscatine Community College.

Lincoln just made a $30 million investment in education and training. “This is all about preparing teachers to teach better,“ he said. Lincoln plans to work with the U.S. Department of Labor, schools and industry partners to “train the trainers.”

The company already has three levels of certification for welding instructors, including one for community college instructors, and just launched a professional development program for teachers.

Scales urged community college leaders to “get aggressive with your business partners.”

He had been approached by a company desperate to hire electrical engineers that didn’t even know there was a community college nearby.

“Don’t sit on the sideline and wait for industry to come to you,” he advised. “You have to knock on their doors.”

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About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.