Adapting to changing workforce needs during COVID and beyond

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While acknowledging COVID-19 challenges, speakers at the 2020 Virtual ATE Principal Investigators’ Conference this week complimented the resiliency of the 1,050 people attending the meeting. They urged them to move through difficulties to strengthen their programs and to prepare students to thrive when the world emerges from the pandemic.

“I hope you will aspire to find those new opportunities,” said V. Celeste Carter, lead program director for the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. Since the ATE program began in 1993, two-year college educators have had leadership roles in the ATE projects and centers that focus on educating the skilled technical workforce.

Carter on Tuesday praised the ATE community of STEM educators and industry partners for pivoting and adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also offered words of reassurance: “All of us at the NSF are aware of your challenges, and we will support you as you move forward on your projects…Our goal is that you will have successful projects.”

Related ATE conference article: Finding opportunities amid crises — even COVID-19

When introducing Victor R. McCrary, Jr., vice chair of the National Science Board that governs NSF, Carter noted that his leadership of the board’s Task Force on the Skilled Technical Workforce led to the recent inclusion of associate-degree recipients in the data gathered and disseminated by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

McCrary, who is vice president for research and graduate programs at the University of the District of Columbia, lauded ATE innovations for bringing diverse populations into STEM fields.

“In a world where we need many pathways for our folks here in the United States into STEM, ATE programs and centers are showing how to engage a wider swath of American talent in STEM,” he said.

Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), gave kudos to the ATE community for “persistence and innovation in developing strong STEM technician education programs in response to industry needs.” He noted that ATE initiatives align with the work of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, on which he serves.

“That’s exactly what we’re talking about as we hopefully come out of this pandemic with an even more robust economy and workforce,” he said.

Narrowing the divide

The opening plenary session of the ATE conference focused on equity and inclusion.

Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said “students are caught in the vortex” of education disruption. By extenuating the digital divide, she said, the pandemic threatens to create a new underclass of children and adults who lack access to computers and broadband internet and face enduring financial stresses.

The widening digital divide needs “an all-hands-on-deck strategy” to address the opportunity gaps that will follow it, Turner Lee said, urging ATE educators to think creatively about how they deploy their programs and develop curriculum for new workforce skills.

The pandemic can spark conversations with employers about the technical skills they need, according to George A. Parker, a technical fellow and technical lead engineer at the Boeing Company. In that capacity, he has worked in partnership with the National Resource Center for Materials Technology Education at Edmonds Community College (Washington) on composites technology curriculum and student recruitment.

He suggested that educators carefully examine how students learn amid the havoc of COVID and then adjust their teaching in response. He also urged educators to impress on students the attributes of effective independent workers as extremely important in “the new normal” of disaggregated work settings: “Can they be on time? Are you responsible? Can you follow instructions? Can you work in a team environment?…Can you read? Can you write?”

Future workforce planning

Another conference panel delved into the crosscutting skills technicians will need and provided insights into how industries adopt new technologies.

“It’s all about data. If your company is data-driven, and your company is going to make decisions based on data … you have to make sure your measurements are accurate,” said Matthew Carter, vice president at Cook Medical’s Winston-Salem, North Carolina,  manufacturing facility.

He said the company has a five-year planning horizon that uses metrics to identify challenges and determine when and where to incorporate new technologies. For example, it uses 3D printing to accelerate product design.

Scot McLemore, manager of talent acquisition and mobility for the American Honda Motor Company, Inc., said the automaker has different timelines for different teams. They range from the immediate future to increments of three, five and seven years. One team in Japan looks 20 to 30 years out.

McLemore currently is working with U.S. educators to prepare students to work in “smart factories” where the internet of things requires multi-craft technicians who understand the fundamentals of networked devices as well as mechanical and electrical components. McLemore directed ATE educators to the Ohio Manufacturing Association’s resources as an example of industry and education collaboration that aims to attract new people to manufacturing careers and up-skill incumbent employees.

During the pandemic, Honda has used remote technologies to teach employees at its facilities in Indiana and Canada about the laser braze welding it first implemented at its Marysville, Ohio, facility to attach automobile roofs to support pillars.

Dawn Montemayor, virtual chief security officer at Cyber Risk Solutions, described the technology adoption process she has seen used by other agile companies as a “waterfall approach” that yields quick wins to save time or money.

“You’re going to take those results from phase one and make sure you’re implementing them in the next [phase], versus designing the whole thing, and then by the time you’re done, the technology has already changed,” she said. 

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.