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Skilled Trades Educators & Employers: We Need to Be Better Partners

Technology Educators and Manufacturers Collaborating to Close the Skills Gap

By William Ng
THOMASNET.com

At a workforce development meeting last week, manufacturing educators and employers from across the Midwest and elsewhere in the U.S. agreed that much greater collaboration between the private sector and teaching institutions is needed to fix the U.S. industrial labor skills gap.

About 35 community college and technical school educators and human resource managers of manufacturing companies, along with workforce development experts, met at the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association International’s (FMA) T.E.A.M. Summit in Anoka, Minn., to tackle the multifaceted and complex manufacturing talent crisis. They concluded that foundational changes must be made in curriculum education in college and high schools, certification and credentialing programs, and internships and apprenticeships.

Moreover, the group discussed different ways to change negative public perceptions about manufacturing, stimulate younger generations into entering the sector, and create greater employee engagement, development, and retention at manufacturing businesses. But the biggest challenge, both teachers and employers acknowledged, is overcoming the disconnect that currently exists between the educational system and the private sector in preparing students with the skills they require to become effective workers.

Despite coming from different areas around the country, skilled trades instructors and program administrators lamented a similar lack of engagement by manufacturing businesses in their student development efforts. Years of under-coordination with employers have resulted in numerous situations where the graduates and would-be employees they produce do not match up with job competencies.

Larry Clark, who teaches welding and metal fabrication at Moraine Park Technical College, in Fond du Lac, Wis., said that while several local manufacturers are members of the school’s manufacturing program advisory committee, they meet with faculty just twice per year. “We need an engaged faculty working with employers,” he said.

Today’s shop floor skills in advanced manufacturing facilities can be highly specialized, but employers have not been defining them specifically enough to educators, according to Dave Stotelmyre, machine shop instructor at Kirkwood Community College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That problem is magnified because of the rapid pace of manufacturing technology advances. He said the school has had difficulties placing the right candidates into area manufacturers, as a result.

“Companies need to have some forethought and identify what their needs are,” Stotelmyre said. “When the [employees] are not what they expected, now the specifics start flowing out.” He said companies “need to be involved right up front” with schools, working together as partners in developing the right manufacturing employees.

“Manufacturers, in general, don’t think that educating their future workforce is their job,” said Pat Lee of the FMA.

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