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Higher Education

The Skills Gap

by Drew Logsdon (Western Kentucky)

In 2011, an estimated 600,000 manufacturing jobs went unfilled, presenting an alarming figure as the United States emerged from the Great Recession. The gap was mostly attributed to the manufacturing sector’s desire for more workers with technical expertise in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). What was more concerning was the bubble about to pop on the horizon as an expected 2.7 million workers plan to retire in the next 10-years.

This was increasingly concerning given the impact that manufacturing has on the US economy. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, every dollar spent in manufacturing results in $1.32 added to the economy.

A Deloitte Consulting LLP and Manufacturing Institute national poll found that 84% of executives agree that there is a talent shortage and estimate that 6 out of 10 open skilled production positions will be unfilled due to shortage.

But John Kleinsmith (Old Dominion) already saw this problem coming, and he saw it first-hand in the Arctic Circle of all places.

In 1988, while working as an electrical design engineer for ITT at NASA Langley Research Park, Kleinsmith was assigned to the Arctic Circle to assist in designing the new radar systems for North Warning Missile Defense. He worked alongside Canadian radar technicians and found that they frequently knew as much about electronics as their American counterparts who were graduates of four-year college programs. This was interesting to Kleinsmith because his Canadian peers gained their expertise from secondary school apprenticeships.

After his assignment in the Arctic Circle, he decided to pursue an investigation of secondary school apprenticeships with the intent of re-establishing them on a broad basis for U.S. secondary students. He entered Cornell University’s “Employee Degree Program” (EDP), which allows students to work for the university in exchange for their tuition. While completing his first year in the EDP, Kleinsmith began coordinating with the president of ATT in Geneva to investigate the Swiss “Dual-System” on-site.

While American high schools focus on four years of academic work, the Swiss Dual-System allowed every secondary school student to learn one of 157 apprenticeship occupations for two years in conjunction with their academic studies. For graduates, it meant entering the “real world” with experience, afinished apprenticeship, and in some cases, the equivalent of an Associate Degree.

While this can seem like an assault on the benefit of a four-year degree, Kleinsmith is quick to dismiss it. “This isn’t about downplaying the value of a four-year degree,” he says. “This is about bringing attention to the demand for a skilled workforce out of high school. When I coached secondary school youth wrestling, the options afforded to individuals after graduation were college or K-Mart, and there has to be a better way.”

This demand for technical experience in the workforce isn’t a recent issue either. It dates back to 1962 when Admiral Hyman G. Rickover published his second book, “Swiss Schools and Ours.”

Admiral Rickover is considered the father of the modern nuclear Navy. His standards on safety and responsibility influenced the Navy’s attitudes and culture during the growth of nuclear-powered vessels, resulting in a spotless record of zero reactor accidents compared to the Soviet Union’s fourteen known reactor accidents.

In Rickover’s book, he provided an aggressive comparison between Swiss and American education, pointing out how the higher standards of Swiss schools resulted in better results for its students and its economy.

Rickover believed that if the United States was to keep pace and surpass its Soviet counterpart, there had to be a dramatic change in how secondary school students were educated and set up for excellence.

In Switzerland, Kleinsmith saw the same disparities exist years later. Swiss students were frequently better positioned for career success and empowered financially to make higher education decisions than those in America. Because they had two years of experience out of high school, they could directly pursue a career or seek a higher-level degree with more focus.

Kleinsmith’s graduate work resulted in him working to develop a pilot program in the United States in several schools in New York titled Project Gelegenheit, the German word for “opportunity.”

The pilot program was designed to achieve the following:

    • Secondary students engage in ten hours of paid apprenticeship each week during their junior and senior years.
    • Students achieve a portable skills certification, such as Microsoft’s A+ credential.
    • National Science Foundation grant funding to empower secondary teachers to pursue a Microsoft “Trainer” certification.
    • Upon graduation from high school, apprentice employers pay 75% tuition at regional community colleges for graduates who maintained a “B” average.

· Regional communities benefit from an influx of employers requiring high-tech employees.

Dr. John Bishop at Cornell University endorsed the project with empirical data showing “…wherever industry-led skills are taught – businesses and jobs will migrate.”

This also resulted in a boon for higher education as Microsoft’s Authorized Academic Training Partner Program Manager Janie Schwark wrote, “…many students who were not planning to go on to higher education have done so because of this program.”

This focus on apprenticeships and vocational training hasn’t been limited to grant-funded projects either. In 2017, then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said, “…we have to give

students a much wider venue of opportunity, starting in high school and middle school, to help guide them into a productive future.”

Additionally, a National Apprenticeship Week was launched in November of 2019 to continue emphasizing the demand for skilled workers.

Individual states are also leveraging vocational education as a path to better opportunities for their residents and as a way to attract employers and businesses who are hungry for a workforce that is prepared to carry them into the next decade. In February of 2019, Governor of Tennessee Bill Lee proposed $25 million in funding to expand the state’s vocational training programs.

Many of these initiatives and programs will require more time to accurately gauge their success. Still, the skills gap will continue to widen, and the American economy will be the first to suffer from it.

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