As chairman of the Industry Workforce Needs Coalition (IWNC), a group of United States business leaders striving for improved alignment between industry and the educational system, I’ve worked with companies large and small to understand the “skills gap,” or disparity between the skills job-seekers currently have and the skills employers need to fill open positions. When the IWNC was first formed in 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate in the U.S. at over 8 percent; as of November 2014, the unemployment rate was just under 6 percent.
Despite this 2-percent decrease over the last two years, employers continue to report an inability to fill open jobs. Careerbuilder.com’s 2014 Skills Gap Study reports that half of the employers surveyed had open jobs for which they could not find qualified candidates, and the Manufacturing Institute’s recently-released Close the Skills Gap Call to Action reports that 80 percent of manufacturers still cannot find the skilled workers they need.
Why does such a shortage continue to exist? Years of research and collaboration has led the IWNC to see Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs as the cornerstone to building a robust workforce pipeline and closing the skills gap — here in the Chippewa Valley and across the nation. After all, CTE programs not only provide job-specific technical skills for careers after high school and strong foundations for further post-secondary education, but the critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, teamwork, creativity and personal accountability that employers need in their employees.
Unfortunately, CTE programs are not being utilized to their full capacity due to a misperception of program value and a lack of the industry-education partnerships that would make such programs strong. A change in the overall attitude toward CTE programs and enriched collaboration between industry and education would help make CTE programs more successful and appealing to students.
An image problem
Industry trades are often seen as low-wage, less ideal career options than the high-wage, idyllic four-year degrees so many of us were taught to strive for. When campaigning for skilled trade careers, former Dirty Jobs host and CTE advocate Mike Rowe often references the “Work Smart, Not Hard” poster from his high school guidance counselor’s office in the 1970s. Part of an educational campaign at the time to push students toward four-year college degrees, the poster featured a proud, smiling worker wearing a graduation cap and gown and holding a diploma next to a defeated-looking, dirty worker wearing overalls and holding a wrench. At the time, a variety of career options were often misperceived as dirty, hard work while college degrees were worthwhile.
CTE programs are the heart of the training needs, combining academics with rich, career-focused training. They utilize advanced technology and align with rigorous academics and post-secondary education, providing students with in-demand science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) skills along with hands-on, career-specific skills they can build on. Contrary to the image of a defeated-looking worker, receiving early education in career areas leaves students in a position to succeed whether they choose to enter the workforce or continue their education. Early education in career areas creates the lifelong learners our nation needs to maintain a robust workforce.
Although educational campaigns have improved since that “Work Smart, Not Hard” message Rowe recalls from the ‘70s, more awareness is needed to help parents, students and administrators understand the vital role CTE plays in preparing our youth for their futures.
Collaboration is key
CTE has its origins in apprenticeships and on-the-job training; these programs are a natural fit with business. In fact, a hallmark of today’s CTE programs is the partnership between high school and post-secondary institutions. Such partnerships enable the achievement of industry-recognized credentials, certifications and degrees that prepare students to be both college- and career-ready.
A regional example can be found in Hudson’s WESTconsin Credit Union, which was one of eight Wisconsin businesses to receive the Business Friends of Education Award at the state’s 2014 CTE conference. This western Wisconsin financial institution was recognized for its five-year partnership with the Hudson School District, through which it employs student apprentices, offers experiential learning opportunities, organizes career exploration events for jobs in the field of finance and shares real-world job information to ensure that students graduate well-prepared for college and career.
Another example is Strum’s Cardinal Manufacturing. Created from Eleva-Strum Central High School’s top-level welding and machining classes to address the shortage of skilled workers in the local welding and machining industry, this student-run machine shop produces parts for local and regional customers. Profits are re-invested in the business with a percentage paid to student workers, who are provided with an opportunity to learn the necessary professional and technical skills to make them career-ready.
Additionally, local and regional businesses can select from a steady pool of job applicants skilled in precision machining, welding and metalworking. This provides businesses with a more robust pipeline of workers and provides students with a solid foundation for career paths of their choosing.
A third example of successful industry-education partnership can be found in Brillion High School’s Ariens Technology and Engineering Center. Located in northeastern Wisconsin, the center was funded through a partnership between the school and the Brillion-based Ariens Company to provide students with a place they could integrate science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) skills — which many believe the U.S. needs to emphasize in its students to remain globally competitive — with hands-on technology classes and in-depth curriculum. The 5,000-square-foot center is equipped with a design room, fabrication lab, electronics, robotics equipment, laser engravers and more, and allows students to apply their knowledge to real-world applications in all areas of STEM.
In this example, we again see a CTE program that is providing opportunities for students to explore career paths and learn a variety of professional and technical skills by creating a practical learning environment that puts academics to work in real-life scenarios. While local businesses reap the benefits of skilled graduates, the career-focused, project-based learning occurring at the center — three-fourths of which the school’s students participate in — provides students with knowledge and skills they can apply to real-world applications and use to succeed in career and college.
As these examples illustrate, partnerships between industry and secondary institutions help businesses find qualified workers and provide students with industry-needed knowledge and skills; they help them engage students, achieve industry-needed skills and transition successfully into careers or college. However, more partnerships are needed.
What can Chippewa Valley business leaders do now?
In December 2011, the Atlantic Council and PricewaterhouseCoopers hosted top leaders of businesses, government entities and education to discuss the nation’s skills gap and offer solutions. Although three years have passed since that meeting and the country’s unemployment rate has decreased from just over 9 percent to just under 6 percent, the solutions presented at this roundtable remain vital for addressing the disparity between the skills job-seekers currently have and the skills employers need to fill open positions, here in the Chippewa Valley and across the nation. Among the many solutions proposed by that group to address the skills gap, one was aimed directly at industries today: businesses, governments and schools must act collectively to address training issues.
Where can business leaders in the Chippewa Valley look to help ensure such opportunities are provided? One resource is YourFutureChippewaValley.com, a free website that was created earlier this year by the Chippewa Valley Skills Gap Project Partnership, the Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn County economic development corporations as well as Realityworks, Inc. to help connect local businesses, organizations, school districts and high school students.
This website enables students to navigate possible career paths and work-based learning opportunities as they become familiar with area businesses and organizations. It also allows businesses to partner with educators and students as businesses make opportunities within their own companies known. The goal of these efforts is to help institutions across the Chippewa Valley, from employers and economic development groups to secondary and post-secondary educational institutions and government organizations, adapt and respond to Chippewa Valley workforce needs — and there are several ways you can help ensure this goal is met.
YourFutureChippewaValley.com provides a multitude of opportunities for Chippewa Valley businesses to connect directly with students. Through the website, businesses can offer 30- to 60-minute mock interviews, informational interviews or resume reviews, providing students with an opportunity to develop their interviewing skills. Businesses can be career mentors, providing answers, advice and encouragement to students seeking similar careers. Businesses can exhibit at career fairs, allowing students and community members to visit with multiple companies in a single day. Businesses can arrange job shadowing opportunities, providing students with a better understanding of their profession and industry.
Businesses can also step up to help our educators help students earn Employability Skills Development Certificates and Cooperative Education Skills Certificates, credentials they can apply to careers or further post-secondary education. Businesses could also provide youth apprenticeships, giving students opportunities to hone vital employability and occupational skills.
YourFutureChippewaValley.com also provides a plethora of opportunities for local businesses to partner with teachers. For instance, business leaders can agree to be guest speakers in the classroom, discussing their career path, experiences, responsibilities and expertise with students. Business leaders can be career coaches, giving answers, advice and encouragement to students for just a few hours each week. Businesses can provide company tours, an excellent opportunity for showcase to multiple students how your business operates, what your company does and the many career options available. Businesses can even provide Educator Externships, which provide teachers with opportunities to learn more about a business or organization and regional employment needs.
Higher-skilled jobs in demand
In the second quarter of 2014, the Narrowing the Skills Gap Regional Coalition’s Fall 2014 Local Labor Market Survey Final Report surveyed businesses within nine counties surrounding the Chippewa Valley. The report found that 85 percent of respondent businesses indicated they have difficulty hiring certain positions within western Wisconsin, and that most of those hard-to-fill positions were higher-skilled — requiring a certification or associate’s or bachelor’s degree — than many positions throughout the area. Top hard-to-fill jobs included RNs, machinists, physicians, engineers and areas of expertise related to welding, CNC and software. Furthermore, about two-thirds of businesses surveyed indicated that retirements were a concern; of the 4,222 occupations identified by respondent businesses in the region, 14 percent were projected to turn over due to retirement in the near future.
The solution put forth by the Atlantic Council and PwC three years ago that businesses, governments and schools must act collectively to address training issues applies not only at the national level but at regional and local levels; the Narrowing the Skills Gap Regional Coalition’s fall report underscores the hiring difficulties even local businesses are experiencing.
Chippewa Valley businesses need to use available resources, like YourFutureChippewaValley.com and others, to collaborate with educators and school districts. They need to help ensure that CTE programs are in place and are providing the technical, job-related skills and critical thinking, problem-solving skills needed here and across the nation so our students can succeed in career or college.
If more businesses forge partnerships with education, more parents, teachers, guidance counselors and administrators will become aware of the high-tech career opportunities available in their region and the benefits of these viable career options — and the workforce here in the Chippewa Valley and across the nation will be strengthened.
To lend your support to the mission of maintaining critical skill development programs for our future employees, contact the IWNC at firstname.lastname@example.org.