Community Colleges Are Heeding the Call to Close the Skills Gap

Katherine Mangan| The Chronicle of Higher Education

President Obama’s call in the State of the Union address to close the skills gap in advanced manufacturing is already being heeded by community colleges around the country, as they forge closer ties with local industry to design certificate and degree programs, as well as apprenticeships.

In his speech on Tuesday night, the president encouraged more partnerships among high schools, colleges, and manufacturers, and greater focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, “the skills today’s employers are looking for.”

In Illinois, students are learning the high-tech skills employers need while also earning college credentials. With a $13-million federal grant, an advanced-manufacturing program that began at Harper College, in Palatine, Ill., this past fall is expanding to 23 community colleges in the state to prepare students for jobs with manufacturers that, despite high unemployment, haven’t been able to find enough skilled workers.

Harper College’s program, which can be completed in 18 months, offers students paid internships with one of 70 area companies. Students can earn an industry certificate in one semester, then move on to an internship and build on that experience to earn further, specialized certificates—in precision machining, for instance, or metal fabrication. After that, they can continue their studies to earn associate degrees.

Keeping manufacturers from luring interns away is a challenge, said Harper’s president, Kenneth L. Ender. And no wonder: At least 600,000 advanced manufacturing positions are going unfilled in the United States for lack of skilled workers, according to a report in 2011 from the Manufacturing Institute, a research group that supports the industry. The problem is expected to worsen as waves of baby boomers retire.

Colleges can’t prepare a new generation of workers alone, Mr. Ender said.

“We can’t train people for jobs. We train them for occupations, by giving them enough knowledge and skills to get started,” he said. An intern who gets hired will go through more training on the job, and may also decide to fit in further study at the college. But manufacturers have such specific needs, Mr. Ender said, that colleges would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on different kinds of machines to do all of the training themselves.

What a college can do is teach somebody who wants to operate computer-controlled machines how to read blueprints, understand measurements, and use the lingo of the industry. Instructors can also help develop the math, computer-science, and critical-thinking skills needed for manufacturing jobs, Mr. Ender said.

Some community-college officials have expressed frustration that companies that used to train their own workers are now expecting colleges to do so. But more employers today are willing “to put skin in the game,” Mr. Ender said, by working with colleges to complete the training process.

One of Harper’s students, Peter McManus, who is 47, is training for a new line of work. A freelance technical director for theaters, Mr. McManus learned about the advanced-manufacturing program through his teenage son and is now earning $10 an hour as an intern at a local container manufacturer, studying ways to make the manufacturing process more efficient. His earnings will cover next semester’s tuition, he said, and the internship could lead to a full-time job with the company.

“This is a great opportunity for me to change careers and keep my hand in theater while doing a job I enjoy,” Mr. McManus said.

For employers, the program offers a chance to hire workers who have been through rigorous training.

Warren Young is chief executive officer of another participating company, Acme Industries, in Elk Grove Village, outside of Chicago. “My business is at stake,” he said in a written statement. “You can’t put someone without credentials in front of a $500,000 machine and say, ‘Here, run this.'”

Innovation Institutes

Internships or apprenticeships have long been a staple of the education system in Northern Europe, particularly in Germany, and they are gaining popularity in the United States.

Such programs could be a key strategy for creating new jobs and maintaining the nation’s competitive edge in advanced manufacturing, which, after losing jobs for more than a decade, added more than 500,000 over the last three years, President Obama said in his address.

To accelerate that trend, the president asked Congress to help make the United States “a magnet for new jobs” by supporting a White House plan to spend $1-billion on 15 “manufacturing innovation institutes” across the country.

The plan, modeled on the German Fraunhofer Institutes, would bring companies, government agencies, and higher-education institutions together to conduct applied research on manufacturing technologies, as well as develop better ways to train skilled workers. The first new manufacturing-innovation institute was established in August in Youngstown, Ohio.

The president also praised a collaboration between the City University of New York and IBM to help graduates of a Brooklyn school leave with both a diploma and an associate degree. “We need to give every American student opportunities like this,” he said.

 

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