Searching for Talent in Your Own Backyard

Searching for Talent in Your Own Backyard

Manufacturers tap community colleges and technical schools to fill the skilled-worker void.

The face of manufacturing is undergoing massive reconstructive surgery without enough post-operative care. What's slowing the recovery process is a move toward highly automated production processes, high-tech products and environmentally friendlier technologies without skilled workers to do the jobs. At least that's what manufacturers are saying in surveys and media reports. The situation has become so critical that in April John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), called it "the most dramatic workforce crisis in U.S. history."

If manufacturing is going to close this talent gap, education and workforce retraining will play key roles. The new knowledge resources will be offered at such places as Hocking College where the small two-year school in the scenic Hocking Hills region of southeastern Ohio is building its Energy Institute. The college, known traditionally for its forestry and outdoor education curriculum, received a $1.6 million federal grant to build the program, which will be housed in a state-of-the-art facility scheduled to open in 2009.

Located about 20 minutes from the main campus across from an industrial park, the new building will be used to expand current programs on fuel cells, hybrid vehicles and other alternative energy technologies to create a "working laboratory" for students, says Jerry Hutton, dean of advanced energy and transportation technologies. The industrial park will provide collaborative opportunities for both the college and local businesses.

The hope is that an advanced energy training program nearby will draw alternative energy companies to the industrial park and provide employment opportunities for the students. "Training skilled workers is critical to attracting renewable energy companies to Ohio and recharging the state's manufacturing base," Hutton says. Eight graduates of Hocking's advanced energy program, which began in 2003, already are employed at NexTech Materials Ltd., a maker of components for fuel cells and sensors for fuel processing systems.

Forsyth Tech Community College prepares students Mica Welsh and Jim Crawford to enter the biotechnology field. Forsyth is one of many community colleges partnering with manufacturers to fill the skilled workforce gap.
Manufacturers that have been most successful in finding skilled workers are looking to community colleges such as Hocking, says Emily DeRocco, a NAM senior vice president and president of its National Center for the American Workforce. "Community colleges in recent years have really stepped up to the plate in providing customized training and asserting their workforce development role in the nation's education system," DeRocco says. "They're adaptable, they're affordable and can adjust their schedules to meet the demands of the local labor market, and they have illustrated their ability to join with businesses to create programs of study that result in exactly the skills needed by manufacturers."

Another area where colleges, manufacturers and governmental agencies have banded together to transform the local economy is in North Carolina's Piedmont Triad region. Comprising 12 central North Carolina counties, the region represents a labor force of about 820,000 people. As the area has shifted away from the tobacco, furniture and apparel industries, economic development initiatives have centered on developing high-skilled jobs. In January, a regional economic development arm called the Piedmont Triad Partnership awarded workforce development grants, including one that will be used by Alamance Community College to educate high school students and others about machining careers and to create apprenticeship programs.

"The community colleges are sort of the front lines of training the workers that are required in our regional economy in the Piedmont Triad, and there are many examples of the community colleges not only collaborating directly with employers, but we're now beginning to see community colleges working collaboratively to address worker training challenges," says Don Kirkman, president and CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership. For instance, when computer maker Dell Inc. decided to build a new manufacturing facility in the region, a consortium of workforce development boards and community colleges helped support Dell's workforce training needs, adds Kirkman.

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