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Closing the Skills Gap

Leaders in education, business and government are partnering to make Alabama’s future workforce more career ready, with critical decision making and problem solving skills at the top of the agenda.

Students in Shelton State Community College’s Mercedes Benz Industrial Mechatronics Program get hands-on experience with some of the equipment they will work with at the plant.

Students in Shelton State Community College’s Mercedes Benz Industrial Mechatronics Program get hands-on experience with some of the equipment they will work with at the plant.

Photo by Shelton State Community College/Porfirio Solorzano

Even with an unemployment rate hovering at around 7.9 percent, many U.S. industry leaders say that one of their toughest challenges is finding employees who possess the skills they need for their businesses.

This frustration was reflected in the 2012 annual ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage Survey that found that 49 percent of employers polled admitted having problems finding skilled workers. The 1,300 U.S. employers surveyed reported that the hardest workers to find and hire were skilled tradesmen, as well as mechanics, machinists and machine operators, IT staff and sales representatives.

“This skills mismatch has major ramifications on employment and business success in the United States and around the globe,” said the president of ManpowerGroup of the Americas, Jonas Prising. “Wise corporate leaders are doing something about it, and we increasingly see that they are developing workforce strategies and partnerships with local educational institutions to train their next generation of workers.”

To help close the “skills gap” in Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley, in January, signed an executive order establishing a College and Career Ready Task Force made up of representatives from K-12, two- and four-year colleges and universities and members of the business community. The group plans to meet routinely to discuss the kinds of skills needed in today’s workplace. Educators from K-12 schools and two- and four-year colleges and universities will use the feedback they gain from business and industry leaders, along with their own expertise, to develop new programs aimed at teaching students the skills sought by today’s employers. The goal, says Bentley, echoed by other officials, is to help students move “seamlessly from high school to college and eventually the workforce.”

The task force co-chairs are Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives Rep. Mike Hubbard, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey.

“When we’re all sitting together and talking about these things, then every level of education and [industry] can hear and understand the importance of what’s missing or whether we need to put more focus on this part versus another,” says task force member Ed Castile, director of Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT), a state incentive program that helps Alabama attract businesses by managing industries’ training facilities.

Instructor Tom Livingston, at Shelton State Community College, helps guide students in the Mercedes Benz Industrial Mechatronics Program.

Photo by Shelton State Community College/Porfirio Solorzano

“I think this is the most important reason why this task force was created,” Castile says. “Rather than just sitting in our silos and wishing someone else would do something different, we’re sitting together and planning the strategy to make things different.”

Alabama’s effort to attract new industry by supplying a skilled workforce was one of several recommendations laid out in the state’s strategic economic development plan titled “Accelerate Alabama.” The plan, led by the Alabama Economic Development Alliance, was presented in 2011 with the goal of helping the state compete for and retain businesses in 11 industries, including steel, information technologies, biosciences, aerospace and defense and the auto industry.

“We have a skills gap, just like all states,” Castile says. “The jobs have progressed so drastically in technology that it’s just hard for any education group to keep up. And if a student has dropped out or a person has, for whatever reason, not finished school, they’re at a huge disadvantage.”

One initiative that’s preparing students for work in the modern-day automotive industry is the Mercedes-Benz Industrial Mechatronics Program at Shelton State Community College. The program, offered by Mercedes-Benz U.S. International in Vance, is designed to prepare students for automotive production jobs. Through this partnership, students attend classes at Shelton State toward an associate’s degree in applied science-industrial electronics and a certificate in industrial maintenance. During their studies, students also work at the Mercedes-Benz Vance plant several hours a week.

The company launched its inaugural class of 40 students in 2012. The top 75 percent of the class who complete the seven terms of instruction will be offered full-time employment in production at Mercedes-Benz, say officials with the program.

“What we’re trying to do as a community college is to engage in these public-private partnerships,” says Lew Drummond, director of the West Alabama Center for Workforce Development at Shelton State. “The mechatronics program and the maintenance technician program are two prime examples of a successful public-private partnership.

“Right now there are more computer modules and electronics on the SUVs they’re building by a factor of 10 over what was on the car back in 1995-1996,” says Drummond.

With the intricate electronics and navigation systems, plus elaborate information and entertainment systems, that are on many cars today, the auto industry needs employees who understand more than just the mechanical aspects of assembling an automobile, Drummond says.

“People who worked at Mercedes-Benz 20 years ago may not even have the skills needed today,” he says.

But Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield says that even before students reach college, they must begin to understand how what they learn in the classroom applies to work.

“Some of the skills that we need to focus on developing more are critical decision making and problem solving,” says Canfield. “In recent history, we’ve had a lot of focus on standardized testing that teaches to an outcome. As a result, we’ve not put students in situations where they are actually applying their academics and coursework to the real world.”

And Alabama educators have had plenty of reasons to worry about how to get today’s students ready for a job or college work. A 2012 report by ACT, “The Condition of College and Career Readiness” found that of the Alabama high school graduates who took the ACT, 31 percent failed to meet any of the four ACT college readiness benchmarks in math, reading, English or science. Only about 18 percent of Alabama students met all four benchmarks, according to the study. The statistics are a concern for college administrators like Andrew Green, director of enrollment management at Jacksonville State University.

 Students get a hands-on try at skills they will need at any of Alabama’s high-tech industrial jobs.

“We see students coming out of high school having done very well in their high school coursework, but the college readiness benchmarks haven’t been met yet,” Green says. “So the students themselves might be under the impression that they are not going to have to study, that they’ve been able to make it through high school with small amounts of study time.”

To enroll at Jacksonville State unconditionally, students must have a minimum ACT composite score of 20, Green says. Students with lower scores between 17-19 can enroll on the condition that they successfully complete remedial courses. The school offers a number of technical degrees, including an applied manufacturing engineering major for students interested in careers in robotics, digital networks and computer-integrated manufacturing.

K-12 educators in Alabama already have started on new efforts to improve the college and career readiness among its students. The state Board of Education, in 2010 and again in 2011, adopted the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards. The standards incorporate the Common Core State Standards for math and the language arts set by the National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The standards were created to provide clear goals for learning to prepare students for college and work.

The Alabama College and Career Ready Standards define the skills students should master to perform college-level coursework, without remediation, and successfully transition into a job or career. Alabama educators and administrators worked to customize the core standards by seeking recommendations and advice from experts in higher education and employers, according to the Department’s report “Facts About Alabama College and Career Standards.”

Under Alabama’s new math standards, which were implemented this school year, high school students, for example, will be encouraged to apply “mathematical ways of thinking to real-world issues and challenges.” The idea is to give students a depth of knowledge so that they can use math in “novel” ways, much the same way employees have to do on the job. The new language arts standards, set for implementation in August, emphasize skills such as writing and presenting complex information.

Philip Cleveland, director for Career and Technical Education and Workforce Development for the Alabama Department of Education, says efforts were made to ensure that Alabama’s College and Career Standards were more rigorous than the national common core standards.

“What this really does for us is that it provides an opportunity to make sure that we can stay globally competitive with the skill sets and academic standards that are being taught,” says Cleveland.

Cleveland says that beginning next year, Alabama students in grades 6-12 can take interest inventories that they and their parents can use to determine students’ interests, work values, abilities and skills.

“It will help them [students] to determine potential career paths,” says Cleveland. “It will not track them in any way. It will just educate them so they can make informed decisions, along with their parents, on what they should do to be prepared for their next steps in life, whether that’s college or a career.”

Supporters of the new College and Career Ready Standards say they’ll help Alabama students get ready for work and will give the state a competitive edge in the future.

“I think Alabama is going to see and be the beneficiary of this, if we continue to implement this strategy,” says Canfield, “Alabama and students in Alabama are going to find themselves having greater opportunities for beginning and launching their careers in Alabama, as opposed to perhaps feeling it necessary to go elsewhere.”

Gail Allyn Short is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.

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