Filling the Labor Pipeline
Those communities that realize tomorrow's work force will need ever-changing skills are teaming up with area businesses and higher educational institutions to fill the labor pipeline.
Lisa A. Bastian (Nov 08)

Experts say most of America's jobs created in the near future will require workers with some kind of post-secondary education. That's a painful prediction considering today's troubles associated with finding qualified workers for a variety of industries.

Businesses everywhere wonder how best to train high school students not well-prepared for the labor pipeline, how to persuade them to get post-high school degrees, and most importantly, how to persuade them to take career paths providing knowledge and skills best-suited for tomorrow's jobs.

The Role of America's "Career Colleges"

Tony Zeiss has a good grip on the situation - and answers. He's devoted the past 40 years of his life to educating governments, businesses, schools, and the public about work force development issues. Currently he is president of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina (its mission is to be the national leader in work force development); in the past, he served as board chair of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Through books and speeches, Zeiss has tried to alert businesses "they are facing the greatest labor and skills shortage in America's history. If they don't understand this challenge, they won't be in business very long." While two- and four-year degree-granting institutions produce needed workers, he firmly believes community colleges - or "career colleges" - are the best solution for the current crisis. Why?

"For the last two decades, U.S. Department of Labor statistics have been saying that only 22 percent of jobs in America require baccalaureate degrees or higher, yet 75 percent of jobs in America require tech training above high school and below baccalaureate degrees," explains Zeiss. "Lower-level jobs are decreasing, and higher skilled jobs are increasing; most of those are at the technical level.In truth, four-year degrees aren't for everyone, and these statistics show why community colleges are so important."

Compounding the situation is the fact that baby-boomers are retiring, and successive, smaller generations possess fewer basic skills. Zeiss says community colleges help solve the problem by educating the disenfranchised, such as immigrants, the functionally illiterate (23 percent of American adults), people with disabilities, and retirees. "We're the only institutions that take all people, access their skill deficiencies, and then train them.We also train existing workers. Most companies can't justify funding their own training divisions, so they look at community colleges to provide that training."

Here are a few examples of communities finding ways to nurture their regional work forces for the long term:

Nurturing New Science Talent

Tens of thousands of Missouri residents earn a living in some sort of science-related occupation, and many of them work either in the Kansas City (KC) or St. Louis regions.

In the western side of the state, Kansas City is a major component of the newly identified KC Animal Health Corridor running from Columbia, Missouri, to Manhattan, Kansas. Area firms make up about 34 percent of total sales in the $16.8 billion global animal health market, according to the Kansas City Area Development Council.

The region's 13,000 trained workers employed in the animal health industry are responsible for Kansas City's reputation as the world's strongest animal health work force pipeline. Local universities and technical training programs in the KC region produce more livestock veterinarians, animal science professionals, and technicians than any other U.S. region. Many of these animal scientists have backgrounds in areas like biomedical sciences, molecular biology, microbiology, and genetics. As robust as this pipeline may be, it can't continue unless qualified workers are continually graduated from all types of institutions.

One educational resource of note is the Institute for Industrial and Applied Life Sciences (IIALS) at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri (part of the "health corridor"). America is doing "a poor job of getting kids excited about math and science," says IIALS president and CEO Gary Clapp, Ph.D. He observes that while many programs meet the educational needs of those at the low and high end of the academic spectrum, "What about the middle crowd? How do we move the mainstream along to build a work force better suited to all companies in the [health] corridor?"

Recently IIALS completed a science and technology incubator that will function as a training lab for two-dozen high school seniors and college undergrads in the 2008-2009 school year. Clapp says it will teach young people "good lab practice," and then help them transition to internships with local science-focused businesses. While this training center will ease the labor crunch, another IIALS project called "My Success Event" may have an even greater impact on work force development.

Launched in 2007, My Success Event is an annual two-day, fall career gathering for high school sophomores. It helps students discover and plan for possible career paths, gives regional businesses the chance to promote quality jobs, and allows schools to showcase their curriculums. Attendees also can apply to a number of $500 scholarships. A true community effort, its organizers include IIALS, work force development groups, schools, and businesses.

Prior to the event, the high-schoolers take an aptitude test and choose at least two careers to explore when they visit with businesses. Last year 1,700 students participated. This year, 2,000 showed up to talk with 80-some companies and over two-dozen higher education institutions. "Most of the post-event feedback we get is, `We didn't know these kinds of jobs were available,'" says Clapp. He notes that the event's success has prompted nearby regions to contact him for info on producing similar programs in their communities.

Promoting Plant Science Careers
In eastern Missouri, St. Louis is renowned globally for its plant and life sciences organizations such as The Danforth Plant Science Center (plant research facility), Missouri Botanical Gardens, and Monsanto (a multinational ag-biotech). Like other science clusters, this one depends upon the right mix of talent on all occupational levels to move forward groundbreaking projects improving the human condition.

"We need not only researchers at the post-graduate level, but also technicians to help us move through a large volume of work," says Darren Wallis, Monsanto's media director for external affairs. The company searches globally for employees, in addition to actively reaching out to local schools, he explains. "In St. Louis we're very involved in university outreach, explaining what Monsanto does, and educating students about career opportunities in agriculture, ranging from research to sales to manufacturing."

Monsanto also partners with a high school in a depressed part of St. Louis offering the only ag-biotech program in the metro area. One Monsanto researcher works with the program's 28 students in its lab and new greenhouse. "We are involved to give our talents back to the school, and get students interested in pursuing agricultural-biotech careers."

Area plant and life sciences companies greatly benefit from the many industry education and work force training programs offered at St. Louis Community College (SLCC) addressing the need for technicians working in biotech, chemical tech, and biopharmaceutical manufacturing. And, this past July, SLCC received a $679,487 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the "Bio-Bench Project," designed to help develop skilled bench technicians for the region's life sciences industry. Monies will establish a training center (opening fall 2009) at the new Bio Research and Development Growth Park located at the Danforth Plant Science Center campus.

"It's a feeder for skilled hands at the bench, and gives our researchers an opportunity to teach at the center," says Sam Fiorello, Danforth's COO and president of the bio park. Once trained, about 100 students can be employed as interns at little or no cost by area companies each year. The Bio-Bench Project also will create plant/life sciences awareness programs for middle and high school students, and train teachers to talk up employment opportunities in the industry.

Finding Technicians

In high-tech Austin, Texas, local leaders recognize that a greater number of citizens need to earn associate and bachelor degrees or technical certificates, especially for high-demand jobs. To that end, recently the Austin Chamber of Commerce plus two-dozen education and community partners set up the "20,010 in 2010 Initiative."

"We're trying to get 64 percent of the Class of 2010 to enroll in higher education," says Drew Scheberle, Senior VP of Education and Talent for the Austin Chamber. The goal represents a 30 percent increase over 2005 enrollment figures.

Austin Community College (ACC) is a key player in the initiative, as half the students who pursue higher education from the region attend the school. It offers 180 associate degree and certificate programs and customized work force training.

In early 2007, the Chamber and ACC formed a task force of leaders to determine how ACC's goals could be better aligned with local employment needs. The effort dovetailed with ACC's ongoing close monitoring of regional industries and production of future trending reports to adapt/create flexible programs graduating well-trained technicians.

A need for accelerated growth in software, biotech, manufacturing, and nursing was among the findings contained in the task force's 2007 report, says Scheberle. "About 90 companies in Austin are in biotech, and some have difficulties finding technicians."

ACC's biotech associate degree program helps close this gap, explains Mike Midgley, ACC's VP of Workforce Education and Business Development. However, after it was observed that biotechs hired the school's mid-level lab techs for their crossover skills, "We decided to develop a technical electronics core program with specializations in a variety of related industries," says Midgley. "It's designed to make our graduates more versatile for existing and nascent industries." Program specializations include nanotechnology, biotech instrumentation, and alternative energy.

Austin residents and its power company are very committed to the "renewable energy" and green movements, says Midgley. Therefore it made sense for ACC to develop two programs for solar panel technicians for current and future employers. Companies needing these grads include Austin Energy, solar panel manufacturers, and a few local firms just beginning to branch out into alternative energy.

ACC and the Austin Chamber both acknowledge too few high school students are going to college before entering the labor force, and each has developed parallel programs to change the situation. "We asked about the biggest barriers to attending college," says Midgley "and discovered that for many families the largest one is the paperwork."

That led to the creation of ACC's "College Connection," now a model program for other schools in Texas and beyond its borders. The concept is simple. Teams visit students at their schools and help them fill out college applications and financial aid forms. "When they graduate, all they have to do is enroll at ACC or the other schools where they've already been accepted," he notes. Since the program began a few years ago, ACC has enjoyed significant enrollment increases from wide-ranging districts.

A Call for Early Intervention
No matter what is done on the college level, the "leaky" labor pipeline missing the 30 percent of high school students nationwide who don't graduate must be plugged, warns Zeiss.

"It's critical. Public schools must learn to identify the best practices in private, public, and charter schools and adopt them across the county. That effort must include identifying kids early who need remediation. Some of the best schools doing really well at reducing dropout rates have vocational or technical components. That's why I say the future of America is bright if policymakers support community colleges."

Area Development Online   All contents copyright © 2013 Halcyon Business Publications, Inc.