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Inward Investment Guides

New Vocationalism: The Way to a Winning Work Force?

Dave Claborn , Director of Development and Community Relations, Ohio State University, Marion (April 2012)
It's called the"new vocationalism" - a collaboration of business and education to produce a better supply of employable graduates. The concept incorporates specific vocational training into the curricula of community colleges, technical schools or, even, four-year universities. Ideally, the approach serves the needs of students for a quality education; businesses for a well turned out work force; and the educational institutions by attracting more tuition-paying students.

Labor Market Deficits

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March that manufacturing employment rose by 31,000 in February, but the sector was held back by a shortage of skilled labor. A recent survey of American manufacturers by Deloitte Consulting LLP found 5 percent of manufacturing jobs - 600,000 nationwide - were going unfilled because industrial firms couldn't find workers with the right skills, even with national unemployment rate above 9 percent.

Business/education partnerships grow out of market deficits like those noted in the Deloitte study. In Newport News, Virginia, for example, Northrop Grumman needed a steady supply of skilled welders, maintenance technicians, and engineers. The company partners its Apprentice School of Shipbuilding with area community colleges such as Tidewater and Thomas Nelson. Northrop has developed articulation agreements with area colleges so credits earned in the apprentice school count toward Associate's and Bachelor's degrees in the colleges. In turn, the company provides qualified college students full tuition to take computer-aided design and mechanical engineering courses, and then employs them upon graduation at middle-income starting salaries.

Increase in College/Business Collaborations

While colleges may view too tight a bond with business as subverting their mission of providing well-rounded education, they are also facing significant declines in state and federal funding. Illinois State University's report on higher education funding shows a 7.6 percent decline nationally in state support from 2011 to 2012, with 29 states appropriating less than they did five years ago. Declining government support may translate into more college/business collaborations, where schools accept more corporate support in return for delivering ready-to-go workers. The academic budget crunch provides an opportunity for companies willing to partner with area schools.

One of those is RobotWorx, an Ohio robot integrator and re-manufacturer. Owner Keith Wanner estimates that within 200 miles of his Marion, Ohio, plant lies 85 percent of the U.S. industrial robot market. He notes, however, a dearth of training for robot techs and engineers. Honda's Ohio plants are 30 minutes away. Many more automotive assembly and supplier plants are scattered throughout Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Michigan. "They're crying for qualified robot technicians," says Wanner.

Recognizing the need, in true "new vocational" fashion, Wanner has started conversations with three local schools. The regional campus of Ohio State University, Marion Technical College, and Tri-Rivers Career Center are now developing an industrial robotics and automation training center. With equipment donated by RobotWorx, Fanuc, and others, the center will be operational by this fall, utilized by each school in its technical and engineering courses. Students will have co-op opportunities with member companies and a pathway up the educational ladder toward a four-year engineering degree - or they can jump off with a certificate or Associate's degree and go to work.

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