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Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It is reprinted with permission.
Across the U.S., large numbers of employers say that they cannot find workers with the skills that they need. In November, a CareerBuilder survey reported that 80 percent of American hiring managers say that they are at least somewhat concerned about the skills gap.
That number needs to change.
In 1973, only 28 percent of all jobs required some education beyond high school. Georgetown University’s Center on Workforce projects that by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require education beyond high school.
Given those figures, one should note that only 28.5 percent of adult Arkansans have a two- or four-year degree. While the education needed to successfully prepare for the jobs of tomorrow (and today) doesn’t always require a degree, the fact that Arkansas is below the national average in terms of educational attainment should be of concern. Indeed, over half of the jobs expected to be produced in Arkansas between now and 2018 will require education beyond high school.
Just as troublesome as the revelation of the perceived skills gap is the survey response showing that only 40 percent of employers are doing something to address it. In the words of Grainger Inc. CEO Jim Ryan: “Employers no longer have the luxury of standing on the sidelines.”
Forward-thinking employers have recognized this and engaged with educational institutions in general, and with community and technical colleges in particular, to address this challenge. Employers across the country are aiding two-year colleges and their students with tuition assistance and scholarships, curricula development, donation of training equipment, mentorships and apprenticeships and more.
Partnering on a pipeline
In Arkansas, two-year colleges have formed effective partnerships with employers. One example can be found at Mid-South Community College in West Memphis, where the school is working with FedEx to train aircraft mechanics. FedEx established an internship program with the school that allows students to obtain on-the-job training while working toward Federal Aviation Administration and power plant certification. In addition to the internship program, FedEx Express has donated a working 727 jetliner, tools and test equipment to Mid-South to enhance student training.
The company wins by helping create an ongoing pipeline of highly trained and talented mechanics who understand what FedEx requires from its employees. The school wins by establishing a partnership with a respected employer that will help its students gain industry-relevant skills that can be marketed to FedEx and other respected employers. And, of course, students win by gaining marketable skills that can help them earn a well-paying job with good benefits.
Each of Arkansas’ two-year colleges has a similar story to tell about ways they are training the workforce for local businesses. A program that has been ongoing for many years is the John Deere Training Program at Arkansas State University-Beebe. Students are sponsored by a John Deere dealer and are guaranteed a job upon completion of the program. In addition, John Deere donates equipment so that students are working on the same equipment they will see in the dealerships.
A newer program is the advanced manufacturing program at South Arkansas Community College, using megatronics training. This program supports Lion and Murphy Oil, as well as other manufacturing programs in the region. This partnership required $350,000 of industry and state support to fund training.
A very successful program in petroleum technology at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton was developed to meet the needs of oil and gas exploration of the Fayetteville Shale play. Companies provided equipment and scholarships to make sure there was a quality program with quality students.
A national effort
Programs like these require a public/private partnership to make sure that workers are prepared for existing and developing jobs. Economic development used to be about “location, location, location”; it is now about having a trained workforce.
The American Association of Community Colleges recognizes the importance of community colleges preparing trained workers not only for current jobs, but for the jobs of the future. A major component of the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges addresses that role, and its implementation plan will be released at the association’s April conference.
Not all programs are for credit. The 22 two-year public colleges in Arkansas train over 50,000 people for 2,500 companies annually in a noncredit format customized for each business.
Businesses and colleges must work together to not only find the funds to establish and support training programs, but also to get the word out about the types of jobs that are available. Careers in biofuels, aviation, advanced manufacturing, photonic, composite materials and many others provide good-paying jobs in Arkansas with only one or two years of college technical training.
To meet the needs of business to develop a well-trained workforce, we will require a stronger partnership between economic development agencies, business, government and two-year colleges.
Bryce-Laporte is principal of Bryce-Laporte Information & Consulting and member of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation board of directors. Franklin is president emeritus of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges