A Skilled Workers Shortage Is a Great Problem to Have

For career and technical education, a skilled workers shortage presents a great opportunity to have renewed and earnest discussions with employers, legislators, post-secondary and K-12 educators.
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For career and technical education, a skilled workers shortage presents a great opportunity to have renewed and earnest discussions with employers, legislators, post-secondary and K-12 educators. The recession brought tremendous overall enrollment growth to Saint Paul College and other two year colleges in the U.S. At the same time, due to the decline in manufacturing and construction in the years of the recession, enrollment dropped in the career, vocational and technical program areas. Many manufacturing jobs were also lost to competitors overseas, which caused many dislocated workers to enroll at community and technical colleges to retrain for jobs in other sectors such as business and service. Those were the lean years for many of our programs and the employers who typically hired our graduates.

Enter 2013. An increase in manufacturing and construction-related occupations suddenly gives us all large doses of hope for the economy and an end to the recession. In April of this year, TIME magazine's illustrated cover showed a high-tech title "Made in the U.S.A." being manufactured by robotics. The related article, "How 'Made in the USA' is Making a Comeback: Manufacturing Is Back -- but Where Are the Jobs?" addressed the anomaly of the strength of the resurgence of manufacturing, compared to most other employment sectors. It also challenged educators and policymakers to keep up with the demands brought on by the ever-evolving new technologies and teaching future workers the skills necessary to remain competitive. I see this as opportunity knocking.

Currently, the demand for skilled workers in some industry sectors are increasing at a pace far greater than our existing community and technical colleges can produce. When we talk to the employers in the Twin Cities, we clearly sense their anxiety about a skilled worker shortage. The recent article "Training Programs Flourish as Mechanics, Metal and Factory Workers Highly Sought (Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 8, 2013) underscores this point and reveals that the rebounding construction and manufacturing sector in the Twin Cities alone will need more than 20,000 new workers by 2015, and analysts wonder if there will be enough to go around. This trend of growing demand from the employers has called for bolstering the supply side with new resources for expanding and revamping career and technical education and training. As a result, businesses, unions and colleges are forming industry-specific, focused and localized social partnerships and working together to develop and train more workers to meet this demand. "With an estimated shortage of 600,000 industrial workers nationwide, a movement has begun to build a larger, highly skilled manufacturing workforce. Trade unions, businesses and colleges in Minnesota and across the country are investing millions to train workers in manufacturing, construction and industrial machinery."

I applaud the state legislature in Minnesota for investing in a number of limited pilot programs that closely tie community college career and technical programs with local industries, hoping to solve the complex and multifaceted problem of the skilled workforce shortage. Minnesota will need more of these types of support, dedicated resources and intentional partnerships. The underlying idea of these collaborative initiatives makes a convincing argument for a broad-based state/region-wide partnership consisting of all essential stakeholders, including school districts, government and others, working together to lay a system-wide solid foundation for career and technical education. I recently visited Germany with a delegation from Minnesota consisting of educators, elected and public officials and business and industry representatives, to examine the 21st Century Apprenticeship Models: a dialogue between Minnesota and Germany in practice. Our travel was sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies and the University of Minnesota. It was a great opportunity to explore firsthand the structured partnerships in the German educational system working to remedy the skills gap, on one hand, and the shortage of skilled workers, on the other, through student progression on the vocational track of their school system.

Certainly, as an administrator of a community and technical college, I am an avid proponent of giving youth the opportunity to explore STEM and vocational/technical careers options, and I look forward to strengthening programs with our partners in our elementary and secondary schools. We've seen how, over the years, lack of funding has taken away many of the resources dedicated for vocational and technical educational exposure and training in the lower grades. In light of this situation, other stakeholders have to step up, and in partnerships with schools, continue to provide the elementary and secondary school students, the opportunity to discover and explore vocational and technical careers. This year alone, Saint Paul College has hosted Project Lead the Way, 360º Manufacturing Camp and SCRUBS camp. All three initiatives are geared to ignite the interest in students to explore various Career and Technical Education or STEM programs at their local community and technical colleges.

We at Saint Paul College are determined to create a steady, consistent and accelerated growth of the workforce with skills aligned with the requirements of the manufacturing industry with our Right Skills Now for Manufacturing Certificate. The Manufacturing Institute, ACT, the National Institute of Metalworking Skills and the President's Council on Jobs and Competiveness have created the Right Skills Now initiative to supply just-in-time talent to manufacturers on a fast track. All these collaborations are key to building a strong workforce, contributing to our rebounding economy, and ensuring its steady growth. Career and technical education can be a viable option and a pathway to prosperity for the youth of our nation. Moreover, it bolsters the opportunity to create a stronger middle class that many of our nation's leaders tout on regular basis. If we want a stable economy, we must focus on creating the greater opportunity to earn a good living-wage and build a stronger middle class.

We can't do it alone. Saint Paul College has grown tremendously, from its inception in 1910 as a small group of boys taking vocational classes in the basement of a high school, to being one of the fastest growing two year colleges in the country. We do this by actively engaging and involving our local partners in business and industry, our union trade and apprenticeship partners, the employers of our graduates and middle and secondary public schools and with the added support of our local and state legislators. To meet the ever-changing needs of our employment partners, we continuously examine pivotal changes that we must make in our equipment, labs, curricula, training and faculty professional development opportunities. My goal is to not only strengthen these partnerships, but make sure that the recognition for career and vocational education and the work done by skilled workers is celebrated and seen as truly viable career options, providing livable wages and creating pathways of opportunity for a strong middle class. We must, once again, elevate the contributions that skilled workers make to our country as paramount to our success and integral to making our economy stronger than ever. That's what community and technical colleges do. That's what Saint Paul College does. After all, our mission is to provide education for employment.

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