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Bridging the Skills Gap: Solutions That Work

Endless political discussions on job creation overlook the fact that employers say they’re unable to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs. One contributing factor is a major disconnect between educational institutions and the nation’s employers. Business leaders continue to ask educators to send them better workers, but both parties struggle to define what better means. At the same time, educational institutions are committed to innovation, but in many cases their efforts do not align with the business needs of the regions they serve.

To bridge this chasm, suppliers and consumers of talent need a common set of metrics enabling both to measure workplace skills and behaviors.

There are challenges: the diversity of academic credentials makes them difficult to compare, and more job seekers and career changers are approaching the workplace with a wide variety of educational and experiential backgrounds. Innovative responses to these challenges are emerging across the nation and many show promise. Here are a few.

Right Skills Now: This is a fast-tracked, for-credit career training program designed to give participants access to stackable post-secondary credentials recognized by industry. In Minnesota, a Right Skills Now pilot is focusing on machining skills for manufacturing. Created through a partnership involving The Manufacturing Institute, ACT, the National Institute of Metalworking Skills, and the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, the 16-week program integrates the specific needs of the region’s employers with the talent and energy of its community and technical colleges.

Darlene Miller, CEO of Permac Industries in Burnsville, Minnesota, is a member of the President’s Council. She helped establish the pilot project as a pathway to solving the skills gap she has observed for years. “This program will bring us people who have a skill set we understand,” she said. “It will lower our turnover, reduce our training time and expense, and help keep manufacturing in America.”

There are some initial results to report: In Minnesota, 34 employers have committed to or are already providing internships for Right Skills Now students from Dunwoody College and South Central College, and 100 percent of the students completing their training have been placed in paid internships. At Western Nevada College in Reno, 83 percent of the Right Skills Now trainees who completed their internship on May 15 are employed full-time by the companies they interned at.

New Options Program: New Options New Mexico is part of a $28 million, multiyear investment by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to create new pathways to employment for young adults. It focuses on building a skills-based hiring model that enables employers and job seekers to speak a common language when they describe essential job skills.

Tennessee Technology Centers: The 27 Tennessee Technology Centers are the state’s provider of workforce development strategies. The network offers more than 70 occupational programs to help job seekers train for a career and help businesses build a skilled workforce. Local industry demand determines the programs each campus offers. Instructors are experienced in the occupation they teach and are expected to maintain occupational certifications or licenses. This model is working for Tennessee: The average completion rate is 75 percent, and the average placement rate is 80 percent.

These three applications share a common element — a language for educators and employers based on uniform, measurable job content. The tools common to these applications include:

1. A process of job analysis to identify critical tasks and recommended skill levels. This analysis identifies the skill requirements for each job.
2. Standardized, evidence-based workplace skills assessments that measure skill levels and match them with job analysis data.
3. Widely recognized workplace credentials that document readiness for growth and development, which verify skill levels and are transportable across industries and geography.

Employers across America who use these tools have results to report.

Berner Food & Beverage, Inc., of Dakota, Illinois. The 70-year old private label supplier of food and beverage products for retailers reported turnover rates in one department that cost the company nearly $200,000 a year in 2009 and 2010. Berner used data, assessments and credentials to reduce turnover to just over 2 percent in 2011. They also lowered, over a two-year period, workers’ compensation expense by 95 percent, and the cost of nonconforming product by 80 percent. The firm is currently experiencing the best run without a lost-time injury in company history. Stephen Kneubuehl, president and CEO, attributes much of the turnaround to training, assessments and certification offered at Highland Community College.

Martin Scaglione is president of ACT’s Workforce Development Division. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.