Why Business Leaders Must Get Involved to Close the Gaps

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Far too often college students worry that, after earning a degree, they will fail to find a related job.  Far too often business executives (and particularly employers involved in tech fields) worry about finding a fresh crop of qualified graduates to deal with shortages of skilled workers.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between education and employment. Our economic prosperity depends on fixing this disconnect—increasing the number of students that pursue post-secondary education and enhancing the experience of current students so that they get the knowledge and skills that employers need now while building a foundation for lifelong learning. Researchers at Georgetown University estimate that the U.S. will face a shortage of 5 million workers in 2020 with the necessary education and training.

Community college leaders are well-aware of this dilemma, and they are responding by creating thousands of courses and certificate programs that—in addition to traditional academic disciplines—can give students concrete skills and experience.

Some business leaders do more than bemoan the current reality: They are working diligently to close the gaps. By working with community colleges—creating internships, participating in classroom and curriculum development, and mentoring—they are seizing the opportunity to create a “win-win-win” for students, themselves and society.

But we need more members of the business community to step up and create the future.  There are some who have chosen to simply decry the problem without taking an active role to be change-makers—and many who want to help, but don’t know how to go about it.  Science Foundation Arizona and others are working to connect businesses with schools to move beyond talk and take action.

Sometimes, a little push helps. In the first year of a National Science Foundation-funded Advanced Technology Education program led by SFAz, we struggled to get industry partners involved in creating opportunities for community college students who were studying engineering and mechatronics, even though we had funds to subsidize internships. (In fact, only one defense contractor signed up and hired 10 student interns.)

But the more word got out that this was a viable and rewarding path to train and, ultimately, employ qualified graduates, the more companies got engaged. Within two years, nine companies were offering subsidized internships and 12 more were funding interns from Cochise Community College. Previously, many of these companies only hired university students as interns.

But this was just a piece of the puzzle. Recognizing the potential, businesses participated in helping shape curriculum to ensure that students got a valuable education and they, in turn, got qualified students. Given the continually evolving nature of technology, this kind of engagement by companies is needed regularly for schools and teachers to react to changes as they come.

So how did this play out? Industry partners helped revise cybersecurity curricula, for example, leading to the creation of a new cybersecurity degree program with certifications.  Similarly, industry partners capitalized on the skills training provided by an underutilized mechatronics program to generate a new engineering technology degree. In both cases, industry participation strengthened the programs and enabled graduates to apply for jobs armed with needed technical skills.

The result was that students experienced greater success in finding high-tech jobs locally, while companies discovered that they could meaningfully influence the quality of the workforce pipeline.  That “pipeline,” so often just a buzzword without much meaning, became real. They could see it in the faces of degree-bearing students.

And what happened to those fresh-faced interns? More than half were hired for full-time positions.  And how important is this in setting them on a path? Just consider that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean wage in Arizona in 2015 was $45,310, while the entry-level computer network support specialists in Arizona earned up to $47,000 and entry-level information security analysts earned as much as $63,000.

This is just one example, of course. Students at Pima Community College have taken part in a two-semester “Get Into Energy” program that teaches energy fundamentals, as well as hands-on training with the industry’s tools and techniques. This partnership with Tucson Electric Power goes deep: TEP employees have helped design the courses and even teach some by gaining certification as adjunct faculty or co-teaching with Pima instructors. Students can earn a certificate in Electrical Utility Technology—and are qualified for internships to experience various craft positions over a year.

This has succeeded because businesses recognized their need—it’s estimated that nearly half of the nation’s energy workers will be eligible to retire in the next few years—and they could help train students while helping themselves.  As encouraging as these isolated examples are, it’s time to take up the baton and make sure that this kind of participation is the norm, not the exception.

If you want to get involved, you can find more information here.

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– Caroline VanIngen-Dunn is the Director of Community College STEM Pathways for Science Foundation Arizona.  The National Science Foundation has funded SFAz to work with community colleges (Grant #1450661), particularly those that are designated Hispanic Serving Institutions and those in rural communitiesThe opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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