Closing the Skills Gap

Sept. 14, 2012
With science and technology skills topping the list of training necessary to both fill current openings as well as drive industry forward; the State of Virginia is heeding the call.  A key state initiative is to increase the number of facilities that offer science and technology degrees.

While the lament from the manufacturing community about the lack of skilled workers continues to increase in intensity, educational institutions are pushing forward quickly to close the skills gap.

With science and technology skills topping the list of training necessary to both fill current openings as well as drive industry forward; the State of Virginia is heeding the call.  A key state initiative is to increase the number of facilities that offer science and technology degrees.

To that end in January of this year The University of Mary Washington’s Dahlgren Campus Center for Education and Research opened its doors. Located just outside the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren (NSF) in King George, Va., the Dahlgren center provides continuing educational and professional development for the region’s engineers, scientists and administrative professionals.

“We have literally hundreds of alumni working at the NSF, and many of our faculty members have been affiliated with Dahlgren,” said UMW President Richard V. Hurley.  “Being in even closer physical proximity, we look forward to many more opportunities to share ideas and resources.”

Following the 2005 round of Base Realignment and Closures, the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce established a Military Affairs Council (MAC) with the mission of advocating for the three military bases in the region; Fort A. P. Hill, Quantico Marine Core Base and the base at Dahlgren, home to the largest concentration of scientists and engineers in Virginia working at the Naval Surface Warfare Center and five other commands at Dahlgren.

In 2006, MAC was able to convince the Virginia General Assembly to make a large investment in workforce development, principally targeted to the several thousand government and contractor engineers in the local Dahlgren workforce.

This objective was achieved as currently  the UMW Dahlgren Campus Center for Education and Research  provides high tech workforce development by centralizing the graduate science, technology, engineering and math programs currently offered by other state institutions on the Naval base. 

“While this $25 million investment by Virginia will also provide for additional educational offerings and workforce training, the focus on graduate level education for the navy’s engineering workforce is unique and a clear indication of the importance Virginia places on both STEM education and support of the region’s numerous military bases,” explains Ted Hontz, chairman of the Military Affairs Council.

Community Workforce Development

 “The Dahlgren campus is not just for students but for the King George business and professional community,” said executive Director Mark Safferstone, UMW Dahlgren Campus Center for Education and Research.

And it is the partnership between the business and educational community that is often the key ingredient to developing strong local economies.

“Economic development is extremely competitive throughout the United States," said E. Linwood Thomas IV, director of Marketing and Global Business Development, Fredericksburg Regional Alliance at the University of Mary Washington.

“It is essential that we continue to leverage our educational partners to help current companies in our region train their existing workforce while also providing new programs for companies looking to grow and expand in our region,” he added.

Assisting companies expand is a goal of another educational institute,  Germanna Community College (GCC) “Helping area businesses compete in a changing world is one of our most important missions,” said  Dr. Jeanne Wesley, vice president for Workforce & Community Relations & Institutional Advancement GCC. 

“We prepare the emerging workforce by providing students with greater access to career options to serve employers through flexible and customized training and offering portable skills and credentials,” Wesley added.

Credentials, such as university degree, have in the past been sufficient to attend employment, however in tougher economic times a degree is no longer a guarantee of a job.  And in fact adapting life skills to workforce needs is an area where GCC has proven proficient.

At a recent Intelligence & Homeland Security Summit, a 30-year senior executive at the CIA, NSA, Secret Service and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency who is now a senior vice president for a large defense contractor, called Germanna “a tremendous asset" to national security.  He pointed out that the college provides an affordable and quick solution to adults asking, "How can I take my life skills and what I've learned in the past and package them in a way that helps?" and to businesses who need  that help.

“ We appreciate the fact that Germanna is willing to listen to us and partner with us,” said George Hughes, COO of SimVentions, Inc. SimVentions is a Spotsylvania County-based defense contractor specializing in solutions in systems and software engineering and modeling and simulation. “They’re willing to try something new that might end up being a win-win for both.”

Working with companies on specific training is another avenue that community colleges are adapting, as is the case with GCC.

 “Germanna has been working with us to set up specialized training,” explains Dr. Bob Dawkins, director of Education & Standards at A-T Solutions, a Spotsylvania-based defense contractor recently awarded a $90 million contract from the  U.S. Department of Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

As IndustryWeek’s editor-in-chief Pat Panchak said in a recent column , “We've battled the skilled worker shortage for too long, and we're bracing for an even bigger drought as increasing numbers of baby boomers retire. We need to dig deeper into why the problem persists and come up with better solutions.” It seems that Virginia is making inroads into better solutions. 

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