OP-ED | Schools and Businesses Work Together to Eliminate Skills Gap
Connecticut jumped 10 spots in CNBC’s “Top States for Business” rankings earlier this summer, due in large measure to the quality of the workforce and educational system.
Good news, for sure. However, almost half of the respondents to a 2016 Connecticut Business & Industry survey said that a “lack of skilled workers” poses a considerable challenge.
So what gives?
Welcome to the technology-laden, 21st-century economy. As I wrote last month, large factories are being replaced by smaller, advanced manufacturing firms that need skilled, problem-solving employees in place of the traditional assembly-line workers. Right now, those people are scarce for a number of reasons.
UCLA professor Chris Tilly contends “a major part of the problem is that young adults are often pushed to get a four-year college degree. Careers that require a four-year college degree are often viewed as having a higher status in society. The reality, however, is that careers in technical fields are often better paid and more aligned with people who are better with hands-on work.”
Connecticut reflects this preference for college: Of all high school graduates in 2013, 73 percent enrolled in college within the first year after graduating. In 2010 — the most recent year for which I could find comparative statistics — 79 percent of Connecticut high school graduates attended college while the national average was 63 percent. College is simply an educational priority for most Nutmeggers. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In 2014, the Connecticut Technical High School System (CTHSS) instituted “Tomorrow’s Framework,” a strategic plan that promotes “expansion of its manufacturing education centers, re-vamped curriculum and certification requirements, and post-secondary programs that help students continue building their skills.”
It also includes collaboration with manufacturers.
“Connecticut’s partnership-in progress — an alliance of manufacturers, the Connecticut Technical High School System and our state’s community colleges — is laying the foundation for students’ continuous learning on the job and in school,” said Raymond Coombs Jr., president, Westminster Tool Inc. and board member of the Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance. “What makes it work? Constant interaction between these schools’ instructors and the manufacturing leaders within our companies.”
CTHSS jump-starts this interaction through the Young Manufacturers Academy, an eight-day summer program sponsored through the Manufacturing Innovation Fund of the Connecticut Department of Economic & Community Development. The academy engages students entering grades 7-9 in “hands-on activities, simulation-based learning, virtual machining environments, travel to industry locations for on-site interaction with manufacturers, and a mock career fair.”
“It’s a really good program” said Steven Orloski, Emmett O’Brien Technical High School’s department head for precision manufacturing. “Here we give them hands-on experience with machines. They fabricate a part from the beginning stages to finished material.”
Orloski knows of what he speaks: “I’ve put 90 percent of my graduates into the workforce. I’ve got graduates working at Alinabal, Orchid Orthopedic Solutions and Schick in Milford, Precision Resources in Shelton, Bridgeport Fittings, and Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford.”
Educating students about the technical workplace doesn’t end with school. Apprenticeship programs are also essential in helping to close the skills gap. Unfortunately, not all politicians understand this economic reality.
“Local manufacturers, employees, and labor leaders gathered [on July 21] with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, to criticize a congressional budget cut to a program that funded manufacturing apprenticeships they say are vital to employers such as Electric Boat (EB),” reported the Norwich Bulletin. “The meeting followed action [on July 19] in Washington, where Republicans passed the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education budget through the Appropriations Committee. The move cut all apprenticeship program grant funding from the federal budget for the 2018 fiscal year.”
EB’s apprenticeship program, begun in January, resulted in 600 new employees, according to Courtney: “It is likely that these workers would have been shut out of good-paying jobs in metal trades and design work without the opportunity for an apprenticeship. The one thing we heard today from employers and workers alike is that better skills mean better wages and better jobs.”
Clearly, Connecticut has the programs and the workers necessary to close much of the skills gap. Now all that’s needed is forward-thinking policymakers to invest in both.
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