February 17, 2013

Preparing workers for middle-skills jobs

Paul Grasso

— The topic of my last column was the shortage of job applicants possessing middle skills that American manufacturers are facing. Today, I’m writing about what might be done to meet the challenge of filling those middle-skills jobs. As you may recall, a middle-skills job is one that requires more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. 

In a country as diverse as the United States, a “one size fits all” approach to solving this problem won’t work; there is a mix of solutions and different regions will have to choose what would work best for them. Equally important is the mix of sectors that must come together to build successful public private-partnerships to solve this problem.

Those sectors, and what I think they need to do, are:

1. Education — High school guidance counselors need to become aware of the entire spectrum of post-secondary training options available to high school students. Counselors tend to focus on college as the best alternative and ignore, or worse, are unaware of other opportunities. At a Manufacturing Day held at Clinton Community College, many counselors openly expressed that they were unaware that middle-skill jobs offered careers with livable wages and benefits.

BOCES must continue to reposition itself in the minds of students and, more importantly, parents that BOCES provides as good or better academic training as a “traditional” high school. Additionally, BOCES needs to take a hard look at the vocational training it offers to ensure that they are training in occupations for which employers are hiring. The economy needs fewer cosmetologists and more CNC operators.

Clinton Community College offers a range of courses in technical training including the National Association of Manufacturers endorsed Manufacturing Skills Standards Certification (MSSC). The MSSC focuses on the core skills and knowledge required of front-line production workers. A student successfully completing the course receives the nationally recognized Certified Production Technician (CPT) certificate. The training is appropriate for both job seekers and for those already employed.

The college does need to do more to market their range of technical courses to individuals and to employers. I’m not sure large numbers of either group are aware of the breadth of the college’s technical training programs. The education and private sectors need to collaborate to offer more career exploration and internships to high school and college students.

2. Government — Congress needs to enact new workforce legislation that meets the needs of today’s employers and today’s job seekers. The Workforce Investment Act is well past its shelf life.

The government sector must fund adequately whatever workforce legislation it enacts, and it won’t be inexpensive. According to the Federal Reserve Board, it will cost New York State approximately $2.3 billion to train just 5 percent of the workforce for middle-skill jobs, or 4.8 times the current funding for all job training in the state.

An adequately funded workforce system mustn’t be overburdened with bureaucratic rules and regulations that add no value to the training programs. Making collecting unemployment insurance or public assistance less desirable than working wouldn’t be bad, either.

3. Private Sector and Industry Associations — Employers needing middle-skill workers cannot passively stand by and lament the quality of the workforce. They must communicate to policymakers the consequences of not meeting the challenge of training more middle-skill workers. They need to communicate to students and their parents that middle-skill jobs are good jobs, and they need to do it in cooperation with each other, with educational institutions and with unions. Working cooperatively, they can design and fund programs to fill the middle-skills gap.

The private sector, however, needs to demand that the training be employer-driven. The private sector needs to be involved in education at every level. Employer participation might include providing tours of their facilities, offering student internships or teacher externships, and by making in-class presentations to students.

We are beyond the point where continuous improvement will affect the change needed in our training system to meet employer demand for middle-skill workers. The entire system needs to be dramatically re-engineered.

Meeting the challenge of filling the middle-skills gap won’t be easy or inexpensive, but the consequences of not meeting the challenge will be harder and more expensive.

Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.