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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
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.

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