New Paths for Skills Training: Lessons From the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival

Corporate Executives regularly lament the lack of workers with the mid-level technical skills required in the modern economy.
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Corporate Executives regularly lament the lack of workers with the mid-level technical skills required in the modern economy. German companies, many fleeing the high cost environment in Europe and envious of the fast growing North American economy, estimate that 570,000 skilled manufacturing workers will be needed in the United States over the next few years, including 120,000 machinists, 90,000 welders, 70,000 industrial machine mechanics, 60,000 industrial engineers, and 45,000 advanced machine tool operators. To head off shortages as they build new operations in the United States, companies such as Siemens, BMW, Volkswagen and many others have taken the lead in introducing German type apprenticeship systems to train their workers of the future near their American plants. Toyota has recognized the same problem and opened an innovative partnership in Kentucky, working with other companies located there and with local high schools and community colleges to offer a dual system approach to train the workers they need to build their U.S. operations.

Global manufacturers such as Madison Industries, based in Chicago, explained at the 10th annual Aspen Ideas Festival how they are building their own innovative partnerships to attract U.S. students to the requisite technical fields and provide the training needed for the factories of the 21st century. Working with local high schools and community colleges, Madison brings students, including at-risk, inner city students to their facilities to see that jobs are not the sweaty, manual labor operations of the past century. Site visits are started for students as early as the 4th or 5th grade. Students see instead advanced, technical work and high skilled production technology. If students show an interest, they are introduced in high schools to advanced S.T.E.M. programs such as Project Lead the Way. For the more advanced students in fields such as production technology and computer science, additional training at community colleges for a year or two is facilitated by Madison. Full time jobs are available to those who complete the programs.

At another Ideas Festival session, we learned that skills shortages are also prevalent in the food production and processing industry of California's Central Valley. Despite the high unemployment and willing workers available in the Central Valley, the agribusiness entrepreneurs Lynda and Stewart Resnick, with large operations involving growing, processing and distributing in that region, found that they could not find the skilled workers they needed. Like manufacturing, modern agriculture barely resembles the caricature of dusty, backbreaking jobs using predominantly manual labor to produce and process a crop. In the 21st century, workers need to understand sustainable water and soil management, be able to operate and repair sophisticated machinery, and manage complex and highly sensitive growing, harvesting, processing and distribution systems.

The Resnicks, like Madison Industries, found that they needed to start the process of attracting students at a young age, and to involve their parents in understanding the career opportunities available in their business. So their recruiting starts with family involvement featuring family interviews and facility visits, followed by programs in high schools (whose curricula are developed with the relevant career skills as a supplement to normal courses), and later in community colleges. Paid jobs and internships supplement the in-classroom training. The brightest and most motivated students then have opportunities for going on to college and advanced degrees related to agribusiness or horticulture. Both students and schools receive financial support from the Resnick companies and foundations. Additionally, as they are operating in the often impoverished immigrant communities of the Central Valley, the Resnicks recognized that more support was need for students to succeed. Pre-schools, day care, and health care services are all supported to create an environment for success for students and their families.

Many other creative ways to address the skills shortages problem and attract students into the mid-level skill jobs and careers were addressed at Aspen this summer. Common themes, evident in the two examples above, include: the need to change perceptions of both students and parents about the nature of modern manufacturing and agribusiness and the jobs they have available; the necessity of business-education cooperation; the importance of starting early with students and their parents and helping create the social and economic conditions allowing success; and the need to balance our cultural bias for four-year college degrees with the reality of well-paying and personally rewarding career paths requiring mid-level skills.

As a final, related note, the Ideas Festival heard from Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, that even among her elite students at Harvard, she was seeing a pronounced trend toward "learning by doing." Prevalent in engineering and the sciences, but other fields like computer science and the arts, this form of learning too could translate into attracting more highly educated students, particularly women who are vastly underrepresented, into the technical fields like engineering, computer science and the physical sciences. These advanced skills are all highly valued in the modern goods-producing economy and are developed using hands-on learning and interaction with the physical environment in ways not totally dissimilar to learning for mid-level skills.

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