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Innovative Programs that are Developing Skilled Workforces for Today’s Jobs

Although unemployment numbers are high in many areas of the nation, finding workers with the right skills is a problem; here are some innovative solutions.

November 2012
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There’s no shortage of unemployed workers in California, yet advanced manufacturing employers still have a hard time filling certain roles, according to Karen Burns, partner and manufacturing specialist at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, a Silicon Valley consulting firm. Companies may be able to attract highly educated workers for higher-end jobs, as well as those to fill the unskilled positions, but there’s a sweet spot in the middle that causes trouble for some manufacturers.

“There is a skill set where most of the lines in a manufacturing facility need computer operators,” she says. These aren’t the highest-paying jobs, but they require more training than those roles at the low end. “So there still is a labor shortage around those kinds of jobs.” She asks, “How do we bridge those gaps?”

One answer has been to get manufacturers together to find common ground and establish common needs. Burns is cofounder of East Bay Manufacturing Group, which organizes peer-to-peer events for C-level manufacturing execs in the area. One of the goals, she says, is hammering out a basic skill set that would meet the needs of multiple advanced manufacturing employers. “If we can figure out what that skill set is through manufacturers coming together, they can communicate that to the work force development agencies,” she says.

Ramping It Up
“Economic development is all about alignment. If you can align the needs of employers with the capacity of the community, you’re going to grow jobs, quality jobs,” says Eric Voyles, vice president for National Business Development at the Rockford Area Economic Development Council in Illinois.

“On the highly skilled side, we’re in need of more engineers,” he says. “At just two employers, they’ll be adding 100 engineers every year for the next 10 years.” Add to that the need for hands-on “touch labor” in manufacturing, such as CNC operators, welders, machinists, and other assembly workers. “We’re going to have to have the right people,” he says. One answer is the Joint Institute of Engineering & Technology-Aerospace. The program brings together the region’s educational institutions and aerospace companies in an effort to more successfully transition students from school to the aerospace work force. “It’s a way to align the requirements of becoming an engineer back into high school and bring it to its potential, and have a Master’s of Engineering right here in Rockford,” Voyles explains.

As for touch labor, one approach is a boot camp through a local training institute, which is geared toward providing basic skills that will work well on the manufacturing floor. And like other areas, economic development and work force development officials are keeping in close contact with the employers who are creating the jobs, and are ready to tweak programs to fit the requirements they discover. “We can change programs and implement new training to meet the needs of employers,” Voyles adds.

New Jobs for Night Owls
In the Louisville, Kentucky, area, one major employer’s program that has been working well for a decade and a half is now growing to help other employers connect with the labor they need. Back in 1998, as UPS was gearing up its expanded Worldport air hub, “There was a concern that we would not be able to staff this expansion,” says spokesman Jeff Wafford. The answer was the Metropolitan College program. “Any student who would work the night shift of 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. would get their tuition paid at University of Louisville or Jefferson Community and Technical College,” says Wafford.

To date, more than 3,000 students have earned some type of academic credential through the program, from a certificate to an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree. Wafford, in fact, was one of those students, studying communications. The program has served UPS well through the years, he says. “We went from having a turnover rate of about 80 percent to a 92 percent retention rate.”

UPS has been okay with the fact that most of the participants (unlike Wafford) would not end up making a career at the company. “We get them for four or five years, and they’re dependable and extra-motivated,” he says. More recently, though, the company is helping its fellow area employers by placing its well-trained Metropolitan College participants in other area jobs as they graduate. Partners in the Ambassador Program include Ford, Norton Healthcare, Papa John’s (which is headquartered in the area), Republic Bank, and General Electric. According to Wafford, “We’re funding educated employees ready to join the work force.”

Through solutions such as those described above, communities are striving to meet their work force needs and the unemployed — and underemployed — are gaining skills that today’s industries value.
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