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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.

Nov 08
(page 2 of 2)
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."

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