Skilled workforce crisis: Reduce unemployment through training | submitted by Patrick A. Molzahn

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While the national unemployment rate hovers above 9%, hundreds of thousands of jobs go unfilled because employers cannot find candidates with qualified skills. So how do we connect job creators with trained workers? Answering that question can reduce unemployment today and avoid a crisis brewing over the next decade.

There are 2.8 million workers in the manufacturing sector who are 55 or older, and are expected to retire in the next 10 years. As a professional skills teacher, I can say that very little is being done to prepare our workforce to become more competitive. Even when the economy improves, the shortage of skilled workers that already exists will become even more of a problem.

This past June, President Obama announced the goal to credential a half-million community college students over the next five years with skills certifications. If achieved, we can build the educated and skilled workforce U.S. manufacturers need to successfully compete in the 21st century economy. But we need to ask more fundamental questions:

Why are so few students adequately prepared for, and/or interested in, pursuing manufacturing careers? Why are our schools so ill prepared to teach modern manufacturing technologies? What should the role of our manufacturing industries be in helping to resolve this serious problem?

Part of the problem in the U.S. is that our educational system is geared toward a four-year, post-secondary education model. High school success rates are measured by the number of students who graduate from high school and move on to college; our society still embraces the myth that vocational education is second tier.

Meanwhile, college dropout rates exceed 50% as students discover they are not properly prepared to succeed. Contrast this with Germany, where the majority of teenagers receive vocational training between the ages of 16 and 19. A much smaller percentage of students are bound for university in their country, and their studies are geared toward properly preparing them to succeed.

In a time of diminishing resources, we must first come to terms with the idea that trying to send as many of our kids to college is the answer. Meaningful and relevant educational programs are needed to address industry needs at an earlier point in our educational system. Fortunately, we have a model that is currently working and could easily be scaled up.

WoodLINKS USA has been around since the late 1990s. While its primary focus is the wood products industry, the model could easily be applied to other areas of manufacturing. With 64 schools in 16 states, WoodLINKS offers a national model that succeeds because it involves all partners – education, industry, parents, and students.

Industry-education partnerships are not a foreign concept. Where employers could not find trained workers to operate newly acquired, high-tech machinery in their plants, programs that unite local industry with local schools have met with success.

Students develop skills, learn advanced technology, and are exposed to current industry issues. Many students are recruited directly into industry upon graduation; others pursue additional training in post-secondary programs. Some even go on to pursue a four-year degree and become manufacturing engineers. Most important, students are given relevant, hands-on training at an early age. They develop their skill sets and learn about viable career options.

This crisis in education and training was not created overnight. It will take years to resolve, and will require public-private partnerships between education and industry to succeed. Our education model could easily be replicated in other manufacturing sectors to address in practical terms the skilled worker shortage and global competitiveness issues.

Patrick Molzahn is the program director and teacher of cabinet making and millwork at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, and serves as president of the board for WoodLINKS USA, an industry-driven secondary and post-secondary woodworking partnership program involving 64 schools across the U.S.

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