How to narrow the skills gap

 
By Dr. Jerry Weber
Guest columnist
Posted6/15/2015 1:00 AM
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It seems that we continually hear of good-paying jobs that go unfilled. Are these reports true? In an economy with slow growth, can jobs really go begging? The sad answer to these questions is "yes."

The explanation is a mismatch -- a skills gap -- between our education and training system and what employers want.

According to a recent report, The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing 2015 and Beyond, by the Manufacturing Institute, over the next decade 2 million out of 3.5 million open manufacturing jobs may not be filled due to a talent shortage.

Similarly, Manpower Group's annual "Talent Shortage Survey" released in May, found 32 percent of U.S. employers reporting difficulty filling job vacancies due to talent shortages and 48 percent stating that these shortages have a medium to high impact on their business.

Why is there a skills gap? Factors cited include the rapid retirement of skilled Baby Boomer workers, the spread of disruptive technology requiring new skills and the negative image for some skilled jobs such as in manufacturing work.

How do we address this situation? One answer is the workforce training offered by community colleges and their partners.

Employers and community colleges should build close partnerships focused on the needed skills. Employers can benefit greatly by reaching out and letting colleges know the exact skills they need.

W.W. Grainger, one of the College of Lake County's local employer partners, and the Aspen Institute have developed the Skilled Trades Playbook: Dynamic Partnerships for a New Economy an excellent guide to how businesses can partner with community colleges to "locate, train and place workers in the skilled trades."

New employers entering a region can benefit greatly from these relationships. The College of Lake County (CLC) is working closely with a new high tech firm establishing itself in Gurnee. AKHAN Semiconductor will work with CLC to train the initial employees and thereby accelerate the start of chip production.

Public/private partnerships should also be nurtured within each region. In Lake County, we have formed a partnership among the county's economic development entity, Lake County Partners, the Workforce Development Board, local industries and CLC.

In this era of social media and electronic conferencing, we meet face-to-face to find solutions to the skills gap. Open dialogue allows all the partners to understand which combination of services can best meet the employer's needs.

Employers and community colleges must both invest resources to train today's workforce. Colleges must invest in academic programs to provide workforce training. But employers must help by establishing student internships, apprenticeships and scholarships. The employers in our area have learned that these paid work experiences allow students to concentrate on their studies while building a path toward obtaining a job upon completion of the program.

Community colleges should collaborate across district boundaries and share resources. In Illinois, more than 20 community colleges have joined in workforce training collaborations to share courses, programs and expertise. The Illinois Green Economy Network (igencc.org) and the Illinois Network for Advanced Manufacturing (inam.net) are two statewide entities that work directly with employers to train students in skills needed in the green economy and the state's robust manufacturing regions.

The skills gap is a complex problem and will require broader efforts than described here. Nevertheless, we can do a lot to close the gap and meet the needs of employers in Illinois. Strong partnerships between community colleges, employers and workforce entities can go a long way toward achieving the well-trained, skilled workforce we need for a strong economy.

Dr. Jerry Weber is president of the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

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