Q&A: Why There’s More To The “Skills Gap” Than A Worker Shortage

Amanda Loder / StateImpact new Hampshire

Advanced manufacturing work is often highly-skilled and detail-oriented

Ramping-up federal funding for highly skilled, computerized advanced manufacturing training at community colleges is a key part of President Obama’s jobs initiative.  In a recent budget proposal, he pushed for creating an $8 billion Community College to Career fund.  Among other things, it would increase training for advanced manufacturing.  That sits well with a number of large companies, who say there are up to 600,000 jobs available on factory floors right now, but not enough qualified workers to fill them.

New Hampshire’s trying to change that.  With the help of a $20 million federal grant, the state’s Community College System is working on creating an integrated curriculum by working with advanced manufacturers across the state.

In a story that aired on NHPR, I looked into this so-called “skills gap,” and why it’s a lot more complicated than a shortage of qualified workers.  Following that feature, I spoke with Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about why there’s some skepticism about taxpayers funding corporate training through community colleges.

Q: You touched on this in your story, but just remind us: Why does this skills gap problem matter for the state as a whole?

A: Manufacturing is the largest economic sector in New Hampshire, and it tends to pay better than average.  It really is the state’s economic engine.  And at the end of the day, if companies can’t get the skilled workers they need, they’ll leave New Hampshire and go where they can find a bigger labor pool.

Q: Your story mentioned several times that GE Aviation in Hooksett is really struggling to find workers…why aren’t they hiring these community college grads?  Is this a typical issue for factories?

A: What GE’s doing in Hooksett right now seems to fit into a national trend.  Because even though we talk about a “skills gap,” in the media, it’s probably more accurate to say “experience gap.”  I spoke with Kristin Dziczek with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She’s been looking at various trends across manufacturing.  Although there are some highly-specialized niche factory jobs, here’s what she had to say about the bulk of what’s going on.

“But I think it’s also a matter of timing and speed, that they need those people to come in and start working right away, and be contributing to the productivity of the company immediately.  Pressure of time is making it so that they’re looking for somebody who’s not too old, who has current skills, who has a little bit of industry experience, and doesn’t cost too much.  And, you know, I call them ‘unicorns.’  They’re gone.”

That’s when you get a situation like we’re seeing at GE Aviation right now.  And fighting over this dwindling labor pool of skilled baby boomers is pretty typical across the country right now.

Q: So community colleges are trying to create these skilled ‘unicorns’ for companies.  But do we have any idea if they’re actually working?

A: We don’t.  Nobody seems to be tracking it.  This is actually one of the big issues the National Skills Coalition—which represents both community colleges and manufacturers—is looking at.  Here’s how Executive Director Andy Van Kleunen explains it:

“We do not require that we collect employment and earnings data on everybody who graduates from a college, whether it’s NH or any other part of the country…We do not have an easy way of knowing how many people have graduated from the local community college over the past five years with a manufacturing certificate that employers are looking for right now…That is a fundamental policy problem that the federal government and the states need to address.”

Q: So where’s the accountability?

It isn’t there.  We just can’t prove if, at the end of the day, companies are actually hiring these fresh graduates, rather than poaching older workers.  But New Hampshire Community College System Chancellor Ross Gittell did tell me that he hopes to change that.  So administration there is working on figuring out how to keep track of advanced manufacturing grads, which will help them determine if the $20 million dollars in federal grant money is being well-spent.

With that in mind, if you’re a recent community college graduate who did–or didn’t–land an advanced manufacturing job, or you’re a company desperately searching for skilled workers, we want to hear from you!

So please feel free to use our comments section, message @stateimpactnh on Twitter, look us up on Facebook, or send an email to aloder@nhpr.org


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