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Tech knowledge helps students fill void


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Businesses in south-central Indiana call Columbus engineering professor Joe Fuehne on a weekly basis, to see if they can hire any of his students. Most of the time, the call ends in disappointment.

Yes, Fuehne tells them, the local college has nearly 80 students completing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

But no, he has to tell them, none of them is available to work.

Just about everybody taking classes already works full time or part time or is enrolled in a training program, said Fuehne, director and Maha Associate Professor of mechanical engineering technology at Purdue College of Technology in Columbus.

“We get requests all the time for people looking for employees that we can’t fill,” he said. “It’s actually somewhat discouraging from our perspective because we have a lot of students, and so many of them already working.”

South-central Indiana needs about 600 workers each year with skills in science, technology, engineering and math, said Jack Hess, executive director of the new Institute for Coalition Building.

With more baby boomers retiring every year and jobs becoming ever more complicated, that need is likely to rise.

Education and business leaders said the regional dynamics reflect a national, even global shortage of skilled workers brought on by increasingly complex jobs — though some professors argue that in some cases, jobs remain unfilled because companies are unwilling to pay high enough wages for skilled workers.

“An estimated 10 million jobs with manufacturing organizations worldwide ... cannot be filled today due to a growing skills gap,” according to the World Economic Forum in a report this year.

Employers and educators said the skill requirements to work in many jobs have increased significantly during the past few decades, especially in manufacturing. It used be enough for employees to be able to operate machines. Today they have to be able to program the computers that operate the machines.

“Over the past one-third of a century, all of the net job growth in the United States was generated by positions requiring at least some postsecondary education,” said Mary Chandler, director of corporate responsibility policy and planning at Cummins Inc.

In 1973, 72 percent of the U.S. workforce had a high school diploma or less, Chandler said. By 2007, that share had dropped to 41 percent.

The chances of getting a job with a very basic education are declining, she said.

Those dynamics are affecting the health of communities across the globe.

In a skills-based economy, Chandler said, those who do not possess skills drop into poverty.

Timothy Slaper, director of economic analysis at the Indiana Business Research Center, said the severity of the skills gap depends on the industry and, in some cases, wages.

Some companies are trying to hire people with a decent skill set at $10 an hour, which is “laughable,” Slaper said.

However, manufacturing companies are struggling to find qualified people, because many high school graduates lack the skills to complete company-specific training programs, he said.

A lot of communities have focused on getting children to attend college, to the detriment of vocational programs, which is unfortunate, Slaper said, because high school graduates with skills in shop, math and science and additional education through an apprenticeship could easily find a job today.

Meanwhile, companies such as Siemens in North Carolina are using headhunters to find not executives, he said, but workers for the factory floor.

But companies, too, are to blame for the skills gap, Slaper said, because during the recession, many reduced their investments in internships and training programs. Now, he said, as the economy comes back, they’re asking: “Where are the trained workers?”

Slaper said companies, labor unions and governments need to increase their cooperation to make sure that people obtain the skills they need to fill available jobs.

Hess said that in south-central Indiana, the first phase of the Lilly Endowment-funded Economic Opportunities 2015 initiative helped boost enrollment in the past three years in science, technology, engineering and math curricula by a third.

The initiative’s second phase will focus on steering the students into local careers, Hess said. A pilot program at Columbus Signature Academy requires every freshman to take pre-engineering and geometry courses. By 11th grade, those students will be able to take college credit courses through Ivy Tech Community College, IUPUC or Purdue College of Technology. By the time the graduate high school, the students already will have completed one year of college classes.

Students will have a seamless path from school into a manufacturing job, Hess said.

Eventually, officials expect to expand the program to Columbus North and East high schools.

Nonetheless, the community will have to deal with this issue for the long term, Hess said, even if it can persuade baby boomers to stay in the workforce longer, boost its international work force and increase the number of graduates from local schools.

Chandler said the encouraging news is that communities, states and countries have realized that they need to provide multiple pathways for student success.

Employers used to provide education only for employer-specific skills that would all but guarantee that the employee would stay. Businesses have realized that they need to provide some general education because many people are emerging into the job market without basic literacy, math and life skills, Chandler said.

Cummins’ leadership team approached the company’s corporate responsibility group about a year ago because wage increases and other levers traditionally available to companies were failing.

“Things that used to solve the problem were no longer solving the problem,” Chandler said.

And, she said, the problem transcends economies and geographic boundaries. It exists in urban areas in developed countries, including the United States, and rural areas in developing countries, such as Nigeria.

Cummins is tackling the problem head-on through a pilot program that is helping nine communities across the globe, from Texas to Australia, increase technical education.

The program, Technical Education for Communities, or TEC, is a postsecondary vocational education program that typically provides a trade skill certification within two or three years.

At the selected sites, Cummins hires a TEC manager, who acts as an intermediary between Cummins and a local vocational school and makes sure that elements Cummins has identified as vital to education — an effective curriculum, effective teachers, good guidance counselors — are present.

Chandler said that Cummins might approach a school to build a guidance office and teach the counselor how to interface with local businesses.

That’s a critical part, Chandler said, because the program is site-specific and aims to provide jobs needed by that area’s employers.

In Casablanca, Morocco, for example, dual-language capabilities are critical. While most Moroccans grow up speaking Arabic, businesses primarily communicate in French.

Sites were chosen to include rural and urban areas in developed and developing countries. Some sites have established a partnership with a school, but at others, Cummins still is assessing that community’s needs.

Chandler said it will take years to set up the program, test outcomes and expand.

The company has not set a budget for its involvement or quantified its engagement, although Chandler said the involvement of human capital is significant.

Cummins also will identify key education metrics to analyze outcomes and to find out, for example, how much of a correlation exists between grades and school attendance or arriving at school on time.

Cummins will share its experiences and methods with anyone who wants them, Chandler said.

Fuehne, the local professor, is doing his part to increase the number of local engineering enthusiasts: He runs ROBOColumbus, an annual weeklong summer camp designed to provide kids with hands-on experience in science and technology.

Beyond businesses struggling to find qualified workers and workers struggling to find employment, McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., warned in its November report that the dynamics could have other serious consequences.

McKinsey said repercussions of the skills gap could include “rising income inequality and heightened social tensions testing political stability in countries around the world.”

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