Friday, October 8, 2010

Do workers have right skills?

By Joy Campbell, Messenger-Inquirer
Published: Friday, October 8, 2010 12:25 AM CDT

A gap between workers' skills and what employers need today may be holding back the nation's economic recovery, according to information in a report released this week, and this mismatch also is having an impact on local economic growth, an Owensboro official said.

The skills dilemma for the country is outlined in "From Ill-Prepared to a Well-Prepared Workforce: The Shared Imperatives for Employers and Community Colleges to Collaborate."

Some employers have reported that even with record high unemployment rates, they are continuing to have trouble finding qualified or appropriately skilled workers, the national paper states.

"That doesn't surprise me," said Nick Brake, president and CEO of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. "Five or six companies here are experiencing concerns with finding a qualified work force, even though the unemployment rate is higher than it has been in some time. And in some cases, the companies are not making expansion plans because of this."

Brake would not say which firms are delaying expansions since the EDC is working with them in a competitive environment.

One work force issue is that plants, including those in Owensboro, are part of the shift away from traditional manufacturing assembly lines to more technical work that requires specific skill sets.

On the other end of the spectrum, the EDC president pointed to U.S. Bank. The home mortgage company, which recently announced it would add 500 jobs, has expressed confidence in the region's work force, he said.

The national report issued by Corporate Voices for Working Families highlights successful partnerships between employers and community colleges that allow residents to combine postsecondary education and work.

It quotes the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis who recently said if employers' needs and work force skill levels were at typical levels today, the unemployment rate would be at 6.5 percent instead of 9.6 percent.

"I would say he's probably right," Brake said.

While the Owensboro region is experiencing work force challenges in some areas, it is still well-positioned when compared to many parts of the country, Brake said.

For example, the region's manufacturing retention rate is better than almost all of its peer regions. Owensboro lost about 7 percent of its manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2007. That puts it at No. 2 out of 11 peer groups.

Danville, Va., has lost 79 percent of its manufacturing jobs over that span. Dubuque, Iowa, managed to keep the most jobs in the peer group comparison, losing only 4.6 percent.

OCTC working with employers

A lot of the credit for work force training gains goes to Owensboro Community & Technical College, which has been a crucial partner for more than 10 years in addressing threats to manufacturing, such as finding a qualified work force, Brake said.

Kentucky is further ahead of the curve in addressing the skills gap than a lot of other states, said Jim Klauber, OCTC's president.

"While it's good that Kentucky leads the nation in the number of certificates issued, we can do better," he said. "We need to encourage those students to go on and earn their associate's degree and baccalaureate degree."

The report confirms what earlier studies have shown -- some employees are not ready to work.

When Corporate Voices, The Conference Board, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management interviewed 400 employers, they discovered that new hires do not have the skills that employers view are the most important for success.

Those essential skills, sometimes called "soft skills" found lacking in new employees were: professionalism/work ethic; oral and written communications; teamwork/collaboration; critical thinking/problem-solving/creativity.

Two-year college graduates were better prepared than high school graduates, but only 10.3 percent of employers rated them as excellent in terms of overall preparation.

Klauber commended Kentucky for providing college credit for work force training when possible. That is not done in South Carolina, where he formerly served at a technical college.

The successful strategy to fix the skills dearth involves partnerships among businesses, industry and education to create opportunities for people to advance academically and to follow career pathways, according to the report.

In particular, more opportunities are needed for residents to "learn and earn." Adult learners need to be able to continue to earn a living and take classes.

A Kentucky model, Metropolitan College, which is a partnership between Jefferson Community and Technical College and the University of Louisville, is featured in the national report.

In that public-private partnership, UPS funds half of the tuition for Metropolitan College participants, and Kentucky, Louisville Metro government, JCTC and U of L match the other half and provide the infrastructure costs.

That initiative has kept thousands of jobs in Louisville by helping UPS stabilize its overnight, part-time work force.

Closer to home, OCTC is working with Hancock County industries to prepare for what could be massive retirements coming in the next three years.

"We're doing a lot of job training there with employers and creating great partnerships," said Jim Klauber, OCTC's president.

OCTC now has a satellite campus in Lewisport that provides on-site training. That partnership with Hancock County's government and industries will help to preserve high-wage aluminum and energy industry jobs and help in attracting more industries to Hancock County, officials said.

OCTC administrators also are talking to U.S. Bank about offering some job training during the work day that would include college credit toward a degree.

High school students throughout the region also are getting a quicker start on postsecondary training and education.

OCTC also does a lot of routine job training with employers, including identifying apprenticeship opportunities in which current employees can get career training they need to move up, Klauber said.

Recently, the Green River Workforce Investment Board and three local trades organizations created a pre-apprenticeship program with state funding to give laid-off or displaced workers a leg up on landing apprenticeships in construction jobs. Training for that program is offered at OCTC.

The community college, through the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, also taps into funds from the KY WINS program. With those funds, employers contract with OCTC to provide work-specific training.

"It's great to be in a state that is ahead in the ballgame, but we can't rest on our laurels," Klauber said. "We've got to have a work force that's ready."

Work force development also is a part of the Regional Alliance for Education or P-16 meetings.

The EDC also will continue to gather representatives from business, industry and public sectors to the table with secondary and postsecondary leaders for round table planning and discussion to address the community's economic needs.

That group has been idle for a time but will meet again in October or November, Brake said.

Joy Campbell, 691-7299, jcampbell@messenger-inquirer.com

To Get the Report

A copy of the report issued by Corporate Voices for Working Families, "From an 'Ill-Prepared' to a Well-Prepared Workforce: The Shared Imperatives for Employers and Community Colleges to Collaborate," is available online at: http://www.cvworkingfamilies.org/.