Nov 23, 2011
Emily McMackin
Emily McMackin
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Bridging the Talent Gap: Industry, Colleges Team Up to Train Workers

Science & Research: Laboratory technician

Lately, the talent gap in manufacturing and other industries has been a hot topic of discussion in economic development circles. Simply put, the issue is: Despite high unemployment across the U.S., many employers are struggling to fill jobs because they lack qualified candidates.

A recent Skills Gap study conducted by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute underscores this dilemma. Sixty-seven percent of respondents reported a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers. According to 74 percent of manufacturers surveyed, shortages or deficiencies in skilled production roles – machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors, technicians and more — are hurting their ability to innovate and expand more than anything else.

An average of 600,000 jobs are left unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates, the study concluded, and many workers lack the basic skills to work in advanced manufacturing and other growing industries.

How can this be when more people — about 18 million to be exact — are attending college than ever before? As policy wonk Fareed Zakaria points out, the answer isn’t necessarily related to the number of degrees being awarded (roughly about 1.6 million bachelor’s degrees a year), but it may be connected to the kind of degrees students are pursuing.

U.S. Department of Education statistics show more students studying visual and performing arts than engineering, and more parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies majors than physical science majors. And computer and information science majors? There are fewer of those today than nearly 20 years ago.

So who is responsible for bridging this gaping talent gap? Employers? Colleges and universities? In some cases, both are teaming up to make sure this happens. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte partners with Duke University and electrical engineering giant Siemens to groom students for energy-related careers through the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center. Along with scholarships, the UNC-based center offers hands-on training and opportunities for students to research smart grid and precision manufacturing technologies.

In Tennessee, an initiative funded by a $20 million National Science Foundation grant is bringing together scientists from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and faculty and students from 11 public and private universities to boost the state’s energy-related research and education efforts. The goal is to build a more advanced workforce for this sector by encouraging students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math degrees.

In Clarksville, TN, Austin Peay State University added a chemical engineering technology degree to its curriculum to provide a pipeline of trained workers for Hemlock Semiconductor Group, which is building a $1.2 billion plant in the area to produce polycrystalline silicon for the solar power industry. In a hands-on lab with equipment purchased by Hemlock, the program will train students to become chemical process operators.

Know of other examples of local entities working to bridge the talent gap? We want to hear them! Please share below.

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