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Corporate leaders urge college presidents to 'talk to us'


​Alan May of Boeing Defense, Space and Security discusses the difficulty of finding skilled workers during a skills summit at Harper College in Illinois.

Photo: Rich Malec/Harper College​

​Executives representing some of the largest manufacturers in the U.S. urged community college presidents to reach out and form partnerships to help them train desperately needed middle-skills workers.

The recent resurgence in American manufacturing has created steep demand for middle-skills workers with math, communication and problem-solving skills, especially in today’s high-tech manufacturing environment. Some middle skills jobs pay more than jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree, with median salaries often eclipsing $50,000.

“Assembly and manufacturing positions are among the toughest roles to fill,” said Alan May, vice president of human resources at Boeing Defense, Space and Security. “Finding this talent is key to meeting increasing customer demand for our products while helping to improve the U.S. economy and bring down unemployment.”

The call for closer college and corporate partnerships came at a skills summit last week at Harper College, located outside Chicago, which brought together human resources executives from Fortune 500 companies and community college leaders from across the country. In addition to manufacturing, the summit attracted executives from other sectors, including retail, health care, logistics/supply chain and information technology, who also reported difficulties in filling middle-skills jobs.

Not in sync

Part of the disconnect between employers and colleges may stem from the difference between their fast-changing business environment and what they say is the often slow pace of changing curricula and programs to meet their needs, according to corporate leaders.

“Frequently, we talk about our speed and education’s speed,” said Molly Steffen, recruiting manager at Caterpillar. “We’ll have a [training] program, then suddenly the technology changes and the job is different.”

Community college presidents acknowledge cumbersome academic processes can be frustrating for both sides, but they say working to close the time gap and collaborating closely with corporate partners to stay ahead of the technology curve can pay off for everyone.

“The stronger the relationship and the communication is between community colleges and employers, and the more we struggle though this journey together, the better opportunity we have to be the right side of the curve.” said Steven Ender, president of Grand Rapids Community College (Michigan).

Bruce Brda, senior vice president of Motorola Solutions, said the explosive growth of high-tech communications and mobile applications and platforms means he can’t predict what his workforce needs will look like in the next five years. However, active communication with community colleges is critical to make sure new employees have skill sets they need to be successful, he added.

“Work is changing drastically and at an even faster pace than previously seen in business,” Brda said. “The skills for future employees continue to evolve, and the only way to stay aligned is to communicate our needs with educators.”

More than just technical skills

Finding workers with the right technical skills is only half the battle, according to employers. They say they often find newly hired employees can’t pass a drug test or turn out to have a poor work ethic.

“You can be the best welder we have, but if you don’t show up every day, obviously that’s inefficient for us,” Steffen said. “Especially people new to their careers, they have the world in front of them but they may lose that opportunity if they are unable to fulfill their commitment to work.”

To help combat the problem, community colleges such as Gateway Technical College (GTC) in Wisconsin have begun emphasizing soft skills, including interviewing, personal presentation and communication skills along with technical training.

“We tell our students they’re not applying for a job when they graduate from college, they’re applying for a job when they enroll in college,” said GTC President Bryan Albrecht. “They have to be constantly thinking about what it takes to be successful, and that starts with professionalism, the way you respond to your teachers, businesses on campus and the community.”

A test run through internships

To help close the skills gap and evaluate a student’s work ethic, companies are looking at supporting more paid internships similar to those offered through Harper’s advanced manufacturing program, which promises a paid internship with local manufacturing partners after a student completes four classes. The program recently received a $12.9 million federal grant to replicate the partnership throughout Illinois.

Finding and training middle-skills workers of the future cannot be ignored any longer, according to executives and college presidents. A recent report by Georgetown University predicts the U.S. will be short at least three million high-tech workers by 2018. Summit attendees say the need to find solutions and act quickly has never been more urgent.

“One of the messages of the summit is this: if we are to have a real partnership and a real relationship with corporations, we have to deliver,” said Harper College President Kenneth Ender. “We can’t over-promise, but whatever we take on, we have to deliver.”

The conference was sponsored by the HR Policy Association’s Workforce Development Roundtable, Motorola Solutions, Harper College and the Community College Auto Communities Consortium

Burdick is chief communications officer at Harper College (Illinois).