“I feel it every day,” says Darlene Miller, president, CEO, and owner of Permac Industries in Burnsville. “It” is the widely discussed skills gap.

“Every business or enterprise has a bottleneck or limiting factor, and ours is definitely the lack of talented machinists to be able to run our equipment,” she says. Manufacturing has been a poster child for the skills gap, but talk of a gap extends in other directions: IT, health care, energy, agriculture.

Permac Industries makes precision-machined parts for customers in aerospace, medical technology, and other fields. In 2009, when the company needed someone to program and operate its Swiss CNC (computer numerical controlled) equipment on a second shift, Miller says she searched for two years to find a qualified person she could hire.

Stories like that are familiar by now—so much so that there’s a backlash. Skeptics doubt that the problem is all on the side of workers or the colleges and universities that train them. They claim deficits on the employer side: pay that’s too low to attract the right people; superficial searches based more on keywords than on capabilities; unwillingness to spend time and money on training.

A new report from the State of Minnesota found that in just 15 percent of cases did employers attribute their hiring difficulties solely to a skills mismatch between the job and the available candidates.

No surprise that there are claims and counterclaims; in reality, the so-called skills gap is many gaps. That makes it impossible to arrive at any single solution and difficult even to get a complete picture of the problem. Identifying its parts, though, is the only way to know if resources spent to fill the gap will hit their mark.

Educators and employers in Minnesota made several new efforts last year to understand and close the skills gap, and this year, they’ll launch several more. They tend to take one of three approaches:

  • improve the training;
  • improve the image and awareness of certain jobs; or
  • rebuild a broken pipeline of talent.

There are a number of gaps that we need to address, says Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU). He’s homed in on one he believes is urgent.

“There are time lags here,” he says. “It takes time for us to hear about [a problem]. It takes time to build a program. It takes time to get people through the program, and by then you may be skating to where the puck was.”

Improve the Training

“We are working to understand the needs for every sector across the state,” Rosenstone says. The MnSCU system is already modifying curricula and partnering with businesses to meet work force needs.

MnSCU hosted 55 listening sessions with employers around Minnesota from March through December last year. Creating a real-time window into industry needs is one initiative that resulted. Rosenstone has also asked his system’s presidents to evaluate curriculum, outcomes, and allocation of existing funds in light of the listening sessions. He wants additional funds from the state and a “dollar-for-dollar match” from employers to aid MnSCU’s response.

Fixing time lags should be part of that, Inez Wildwood agrees. She is chair of the Governor’s Workforce Development Council and manager of learning and organizational development for Allete, Inc., a Duluth-based power generation and transmission company.

“One of the reasons that we’re in a skills gap is that . . . we’ve been using data about where the jobs have been to give to technical schools and colleges,” Wildwood says. Allete and others are now trying to give schools “data that are looking out a bit: ‘This is where we’re at today, but this is the way the technology is changing or our business is growing toward the future.’”

“Could employers do more [to close the skills gap]? I think all of us can,” Wildwood says. “I don’t believe that it’s necessarily taking on all of the training for employees. I think the ‘more’ that employers can do is to strengthen their interface with the community and technical colleges near them.” Allete helped develop the curriculum for a new associate’s degree program in power generation at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids four years ago. The company provided its own employees to do classroom teaching.

Listening to industry is not new for MnSCU or the state’s community and technical colleges. Each typically has partnerships with companies in its region. And a large part of what technical colleges do is create custom training tailored to the needs of individual companies, which pay for the services. MnSCU trains approximately 125,000 workers throughout Minnesota in such programs each year, Rosenstone says.

Last year’s listening sessions were more about creating future workers than training current ones, however.

One of the central messages Rosenstone heard from employers: A nurse is not a nurse is not a nurse. Same for welders and other employees. The nuanced skills needed vary with time, geography, and the types of companies in a given region.

At MnSCU’s sessions on health care, “there wasn’t a single person in the room who wasn’t expressing concern about [not having enough] extended-care nurses, the kinds of transitions we’re going to be going through in Minnesota as demographics change,” Rosenstone says. The elderly tend to have several intersecting health problems. They have family groups involved in decisions about their care. Those facts change the skills needed for the job of nurse.

“Just looking at raw data [about unfilled jobs] doesn’t give you anywhere close to the details of where the skills gap actually exists,” Rosenstone adds.

Also heard in listening sessions: Graduates need more hands-on work experience; they need to train on state-of-the-art equipment; and employers experience not just a lack of technical skills, but a lack of so-called essential skills in new hires—in communication, math, problem solving, project management, working with teams, and being “customer facing.”

Apprenticeship is one way to give students more hands-on experience. One of the first new apprenticeship programs in the state in the past 30 years was launched last September by Alexandria Technical and Community College, says Kevin Kopischke, president of the MnSCU campus in central Minnesota. The four-year program, which trains workers in machine tools technology, has support from the local Packaging Machine Manufacturers Consortium, a group that came together in 2009 to “pool resources for the purposes of noncompetitive recruiting, hiring, and retention of talented staff.”

But apprenticeship isn’t always a sensible option for employers, Wildwood cautions. It means hiring people, and as with any employment or training that a company provides, apprenticeship requires that candidates come with sufficient baseline knowledge of technical and safety issues. Otherwise, she says, “it becomes too overwhelming and in many cases too expensive for businesses to do today and [also] compete globally.”

Winona State University will launch a new program this fall, a “professional science master’s degree.” Winona State President Scott Olson explains that most people earning advanced degrees in the sciences get preparation for an academic career. The goal of the new program is to teach advanced science but also cover material that would be at home in an MBA program.

“If we hear a complaint that we’re trying to respond to in business and industry,” Olson says, “it’s folks saying, ‘Hey, we love these scientists you’re turning out, we love these engineers you’re turning out, but you know what? They don’t really understand business.’”

Improve the Image

There’s another side of Winona State’s experience that’s worth considering, however, as MnSCU undergoes a major effort to recalibrate its programs.

More than 20 years ago, the school received industry and state support to start a new four-year bachelor of science degree program in composite materials engineering. Graduates are prime candidates for jobs with Winona-area manufacturers, making things like automotive and medical device parts for RTP Company, Inc., boats and paddles for We-noh-nah Canoe, and fencing and utility equipment for Geotek.

Steve Maki, vice president of technology for RTP Company, says WSU’s composites program has made it easier for him to hire engineers with the skills he needs.

The challenge that remains, says Maki, who serves on an advisory board for WSU, “is attracting quality students to the program,” and “getting them to understand the quality of the program and the potential that they would have for good-quality jobs.”

As the state’s new report on hiring difficulties notes, in production industries in particular, sometimes the problem isn’t a lack of skills, it’s “general disinterest in production work—i.e., an image problem.”

“From the perspective of employers, students are a university’s products,” Olson says. “But from a university perspective, students are also [its] customers . . . and students have their own ideas about what they want to do.” Part of solving the skills gap “lies in all of us together telling the story about what good jobs there might be out there in manufacturing.”

That’s what Permac Industries’ Miller had in mind when she helped launch the Right Skills Now training program. Miller is better positioned than most employers to get the message out about opportunities in her industry, using as her podium her appointment by Barack Obama in 2011 to the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. It helped her bring together local and national organizations to develop Right Skills Now: the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, the Manufacturing Institute, and the testing organization ACT, Inc. Minneapolis’ Dunwoody College of Technology, a private school, and South Central College in Faribault, a MnSCU campus, offered the first courses in January 2012. Right Skills Now has since been adopted by technical schools and employers in at least four more states.

It works like this: Students enroll in a 16-week fast-track training program at a technical school to learn the most basic skills required to operate CNC machines, then move into a six- or eight-week paid internship with an employer such as Permac for on-the-job training. Successful students earn a credential that can help them land an entry-level operator position in CNC machining.

“Are they class-A skilled machinists in that short time? Absolutely not,” Miller acknowledges. But she says that by the end of the program, they’ve seen that manufacturing is clean and high-tech, not dirty and dangerous, and they’ve been shown a potential career path. “It’s really brought a lot of people into our industry who wouldn’t have even thought of a career in manufacturing,” including middle-aged workers making a transition from white-collar careers, she says.

The greatest risk for the Right Skills Now program might be the expectation—by employers or students—that it’s more than a brief introduction to the industry. “This model is a marketing strategy to get kids immersed in a program in a very short period of time,” says South Central College President Keith Stover. Both Stover and Debra Kerrigan, who is dean of customized training and continuing education at Dunwoody, report similar employer feedback on the Right Skills graduates they’ve hired as interns: Eighteen weeks is not enough to prepare students for the shop floor.

“The feedback is that [employers] want more time on programming the CNC machine,” Kerrigan says. And “we experienced some of our students needing more math.”

“There are companies who, after they get a student, they are encouraging them or paying for them to continue on with their associate’s degree,” she adds.

Stover says South Central’s goal “is to get kids immersed for a couple of semesters in the program, get them on a paid internship, and then expect our employers to scholarship them back for the remainder of the two-year [associate’s degree] program” in CNC machining.
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The State of Minnesota recently analyzed three industries believed to be suffering from a skills gap. But the skills gap was sometimes difficult to find. That’s one of the surprising conclusions in a new report called “Hiring Difficulties in Minnesota: Select Nursing, Engineering, and Production Occupations,” released by Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in March.

DEED interviewed more than 213 employers last fall regarding data on vacant positions in the second quarter of 2012. They asked employers how many of their vacant positions had been difficult to fill, and to what they attributed the difficulty: Was it applicants not possessing the right skills for the job? Aspects of the job itself, such as pay, hours, or location? Or a combination of the two?

Even when employers cited a lack of the right skills, the problem was often not solvable with training. What employers wanted and weren’t finding were applicants with particular types of work experience.

In those cases, employers said, for example: “Candidates had the required years of experience as an RN, but their experience was in long-term care facilities, not in a hospital, and that’s a different animal,” or “We had plenty of industrial engineers applying but not enough of them had a printing background.”

Only in production work did lack of training seem to be a barrier for job candidates, and in about half of those cases, the training they lacked was technical training at the high school level—the sort of program that has disappeared from many schools.

Rebuild a Broken Pipeline of Talent

Cost and who should bear it is a question that lurks underneath other questions about the skills gap.

At $13,000, the Right Skills Now program is an expensive preview of the machining industry for students who enroll at Dunwoody, especially if they need more training to be ready for a job. Dunwoody’s two-year associate’s degree program in machining costs about $30,000, Kerrigan says. Will workers be attracted given their likely income after training? Entry-level CNC machinists can expect to make $29,000 to $33,000 a year, according to Miller, and, with more training, work their way up to around $60,000. Will employers shoulder the expense for additional training, as Stover hopes they will? Part of employers’ concern is that the skills gap is requiring them to do more training than they can afford.

Is equipping MnSCU campuses to mimic state-of-the-art workplaces the most efficient use of money? “That’s a great question, and to be honest with you, I don’t have a dog in that fight,” Rosenstone says. “If it makes sense for us to be offering our classes at a business site or at a manufacturing site, I’m fine with that.”

It’s costly to wait until people reach college age or older before introducing them to technical careers and skills. Rather than playing catch-up, employers and educators want to start the process earlier, not only with STEM education that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math in K–12 schools, but through more direct work with kids.

“I think industry has to step up and work with students, even down into the grade-school level, second through sixth grade,” Maki at RTP says. He, Wildwood, Miller, and MnSCU sources all say that in one way or another, they and their organizations are out talking with students at the high-school and middle-school level already.

“We need to get back in the European path,” Miller says. “They really show students at [middle school] age, what are your potential career paths. And manufacturing and the trades are viewed just as highly as any other career.”

Kopischke, too, says “rebuilding the pipeline between K–12 and higher education has become a critical initiative here.” Policy decisions have decimated technical training for young students in recent decades, he explains. Students in the academic middle don’t learn about careers that might appeal to them. “We’ve found that most if not all of our career and technical programs in high schools have, frankly, disappeared.”

One barrier to reinstating those programs is the fears they raise in parents, Kopischke and others say. Parents worry about schools “tracking” their children at a young age: pushing them to choose between the path to college and the path to technical school, and closing off the road not taken. It comes down to whether parents are willing to change their aspirations for their children.

Miller believes there are persuasive arguments that will help. For one thing, “I don’t think it’s coincidental that when our [high school] dropout rate increased by 30 percent was when all of our technical classes in our high schools ended,” she says.

Beyond that, the economic security and upward mobility that have long been the perceived promise of a four-year college degree are less certain now. Miller says it’s “skills that pay the bills.”

“When we understand that 54 percent of our unemployed are college graduates, what does that tell us? It tells us that we’ve been training people for jobs that don’t exist,” she says. Just as some wonder whether the skills gap is real, Miller suggests that one of its sources—the notion that a bachelor’s degree is always the right choice—is a fiction.

“Is going into debt and spending six or more years to get a four-year college degree, and then not having any assurance of finding a job to cover that investment when you’re done, is that really real?”

Denise Logeland is a freelance writer and editor living in Minneapolis.

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