At a time when companies are perennially starved for talent, access to a robust pipeline of skilled or at least trainable workers is paramount. Yet, the tech-centric jobs of the 21st century demand more knowledge and competencies than a traditional high school degree—or even a liberal arts college education—provides. And, thanks to fierce competition in the global marketplace, the days when companies could hope to develop this talent in-house are also long gone.
How, then, can businesses hope to bridge the skills gap? Increasingly, answers lie in creative solutions involving public-private sector partnerships and education reform initiatives, agreed executives gathered for a recent roundtable discussion on workforce development sponsored by Enterprise Florida.
Streetsboro, Ohio-based Delta Systems, for example, works closely with area school systems to bring STEM coursework into public school classes. “We partnered with Streetsboro High School in Portage County, sponsoring their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lab,” says Greg Schlechter, talent development manager at the manufacturing company. “We helped them bring in equipment and technology that they wouldn’t normally have access to in order to [jump-start] a STEM program.”
Similar efforts are under way in Florida, said Pete Antonacci, CEO of Enterprise Florida, who noted that the state has been steadily working toward education reform efforts that would address the needs of its employer base. “Over the last seven years, our governor has [encouraged] our education system from top to bottom to create workers for the jobs he is dedicated to recruiting for Florida,” said Antonacci, who cautioned participants that progress requires patience and commitment. “Education systems tend to operate on their own goals, not those of the market. So it’s a daily task to remind our university system, our community college system and, down the line, our school boards, that preparing our students for the job market should be their highest priority.”
Bringing Skills Training to Schools
Perseverance, however, pays off for both the companies seeking skilled workers and for local students, who are able to emerge from high school equipped to qualify for jobs that pay more than minimum wage. Many also earn college credits that may help them save on college tuition, noted Schlechter, who explained that as part of another partnership in Summit County, Delta Systems and other area businesses give educational presentations on manufacturing to six school districts, each of which offer specialized vocational education in fields like automotive mechanics, aeronautics, CAD design and electronics, robotics and engineering.
“We have to begin working as employers in our communities to start solving our own issues,” – Amy Pope-Wells, president of Tire Diva
“Students with an interest in one of those fields can leave their home school and go to one of the schools that has the vocational classes they’re interested in,” he said. “They can still participate in sports and programs at their home school and graduate from there, but they’re able to leave with that specialty knowledge base, as well as receive college credits due to the classwork they’ve done.”
In other cases, skills development comes from extracurricular programs. In Michigan, for example, support from the auto industry coupled with state grants has fostered a vibrant robotics program that gives high school students exposure to electrical, mechanical and programming work. Each of the more than 400 teams statewide operates as its own small business, with students working in groups to design, build and market robotic projects and compete with one another at district tournaments.
Private sector support is an integral component, as area companies provide mentorship and equipment to team members. “As a company, we engage very heavily with the local FIRST Robotics teams, providing financial support, as well as an introduction into what really happens in our world from a day-to-day operating perspective,” said Corey Carolla, director of HR at New Troy, Michigan-based Red Rabbit Automation for Vickers Engineering. “We talk to team members about what it would look like to transfer from their FIRST Robotics position to our company, and what that career path might look like.”
In addition to learning skills applicable to the real world, students emerge with a better understanding of career options and where their career interests lie. That, in turn, helps them forge a path after graduation, noted Amy Pope-Wells, president of Tire Diva and owner of a Link Staffing services franchise in Jacksonville, Florida, who says lack of direction among young people contributes to the skills gaps reported by clients of her staffing firm.
“We have employers calling us looking for talent and, at the same time, I get calls from parents whose children went off to college not knowing what they wanted to do and then come home and sit on the couch playing video games,” she said, noting that young adults are unlikely to overcome this issue on their own. “We have to begin working as employers in our communities to start solving our own issues. We need to help these kids discover what it is that they like to do and allow them to have opportunities for success in those areas.”
Education is Elementary
While the bulk of private-public education initiatives target high school and community college curricula, companies are also finding ways to bring STEM learning and exposure to manufacturing and engineering careers into early education. Some report that inviting grade schoolers to tour today’s high-tech facilities can play a part in addressing misconceptions about the manufacturing industry.
“If you can engage students and parents early on—in middle school—and bring them into today’s manufacturing environments, you can shift that mindset of ‘it’s that dirty, hot facility that my grandfather got laid off from 40 years ago,’” said Schlechter. “Today, these are clean, hightech, climate-controlled environments with opportunities for advancement and where you can make a good living without coming out of college $40,000 to $60,000 in debt.”
Touring automated facilities firsthand also helps combat the public perception that companies are replacing workers with robots. In truth, the jobs being transferred to robots are generally monotonous repetitive tasks that workers in developed countries shun, whereas jobs associated with robotics are higher-paying skilled vocations. “Automation actually leads to less offshoring and more reshoring, because the reason most people went offshore in the first place was low-cost labor,” says Greg Woods, CEO of AstroNova. “So if you can use automation to increase productivity levels domestically and remove the cost of shipping, you can bring [jobs] back to the U.S.”
Early education initiatives by companies like Vickers also give young students exposure to growing fields. A recent effort to introduce third-grade students to the concept of coding was a huge success, reported Carolla, who says the company used Spheros, orb-shaped toys that can be programmed and controlled by tablets, to create a fun learning experience for young kids.
“We bought Spheros into third grade classrooms, turned their desks upside down and started coding them with the kids,” Carolla said. “The response is unbelievable. They ask questions, get into it and go home and say, ‘I want a Sphero ball for Christmas.’ Now we have different Manufacturing Day events through the year where people come and participate in Sphero ball competitions.”
While equipping up-and-coming generations with the skills they will need to succeed is critical to addressing market needs, attracting workers who already possess the knowledge and expertise employers need is also key. Florida’s workforce has benefitted from an influx of veterans with experience and training applicable to the private sector, said Enterprise Florida’s Antonacci, who says Florida is a “veteran friendly” state. “We’ve got about 1.65 million veterans who make up the kind of workforce that many companies use every day and need for future jobs. These are people who are highly trained, highly skilled and who come to Florida because it’s a good place to live.”
Bringing mature workers up to speed can also help address workforce needs. “People aren’t retiring at 55 and 60—often they’re looking at doing something new,” pointed out Michele Johnson, vice president of talent acquisition for AARP. “When you’re looking at upscaling talent and addressing talent needs, you should really look at this particular population.”
AARP runs a “Back to Work at 50 Plus” program aimed at helping older workers get the skills they need to re-enter the workforce in a new field. The initiative connects regional employers with community colleges to help identify skills needed in local marketplaces. “Then the community colleges hopefully will develop curricula to address those needs,” says Lori Trawinski, director of AARP’s financial security team.
Recognizing the different strengths of entry level and experienced workers, some companies look for ways to transfer knowledge between the two. “We’ve been providing mentoring from our more experienced technicians for [young talent],” said Maggie Laureano, vice president of HR for Embraer, who noted that intergenerational partnership helps ensure that decades of institutional knowledge doesn’t disappear forever when employees retire.
While younger, digitally savvy workers have a greater affinity for technology and tools, mature workers possess knowledge and expertise—and tend to be less likely to job hop and have unrealistic expectations than their younger peers. “The millennials want to get ahead very quickly without paying their dues, and they’re very assertive in expressing their needs from a career and development standpoint,” said Laureano. “It really challenges us as companies to think about how we need to respond to that, how we need to create programs that will support that kind of employee.”
Ultimately, ensuring that companies will continue to have the workforce they need to compete in the global marketplace is a national imperative. Yet, it’s one that, by nature, must be addressed at a local level by businesses, educational institutions and local governments and community leaders all working together to raise awareness and support programs that identify skills needs and create training programs to fill them.