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COMMUNITY VOICE: Addressing the manufacturing skills gap

“We seek success in Finland, are born and die in Maine. In minor ways we differ, in major we’re the same.” Dr. Maya Angelou so eloquently penned these words in her poem “Human Family.” And though she was referring to the thread of humanity that weaves through us all, I suggest that the same lesson applies for communities and businesses striving to keep pace in this rapidly changing global economy. 

One of the most discussed topics in today’s business and political discourse is the resurgence of American manufacturing. From a wave of newspaper and magazine articles proclaiming the return of outsourced manufacturing operations to President Obama’s State of the Union Address this past January, the recurring theme is that U.S. manufacturing is in the midst of a major comeback. 

Yet we are faced with a persistent problem: in spite of increased manufacturing operations, Americans continue facing sustained high unemployment rates because industrial employers cannot find enough jobseekers with the skills required to meet their needs. There is a mismatch between the skills jobseekers have and the skills manufacturing jobs require — the skills gap as it has been coined — and is responsible for as many as 5 percent or 600,000 jobs going unfilled (The Boiling Point, 2011).

As the executive director of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), I hear about the skills gap when I meet with members of our business community, and I see the effects of it as I work closely with economic developers and the county’s Industrial Development Authority. While I do not offer a panacea for addressing this very real challenge facing us in Halifax and others across the nation, I do believe that the steps we are taking to address the skills gap have been effective and over time will be one of the keys to helping our county and region get back on track. Our methods concentrate on two core areas: employer-focused training and intensive, immersive educational experiences.

 

Employer-focused training

Like many educational institutions, we have a department dedicated to hearing and responding to the needs of our regional employers. The core of what Workforce Services@SVHEC does is work with employers to find or create the skills-specific training they require. 

Without a preoccupation with credits, FTEs and traditional curriculums, we are freed to work directly with employers to deliver the job or industry specific skills they require. Progress and skill attainment are assured through a series of pre and post training assessments, and testing for recognized credentials such as the Career Readiness Certificate. 

The power of this approach, is that we are able to deliver training to meet the actual skills that an employer finds missing in his or her business. Many of the skills are transferable across industries. If it’s communication skills for one firm but CAD/CAM integration training for another, we bring a laser-like focus to delivering the training needed with quantifiable outcomes. If the needed training already exists with another educational institution or training provider, we partner with that provider to deliver the training; if nothing exists to match what the employer needs, then we develop it on our own or with our partners. 

A prime example of our efforts in employer-focused training is the Workforce Readiness Initiative: Retention of Manufacturing in Southern Virginia. The Workforce Readiness Initiative engages multiple training providers in implementing a multi-faceted training model focused on an employer-specified skill set deemed necessary for employees to succeed in a Southern Virginia manufacturing facility.  

Training is delivered to multiple job classifications in workshop formats aligned with manufacturing shift schedules and is focused on two challenges shared by all manufacturers: (1) the retention of incumbent workers and (2) a sufficient applicant pool from which to choose new hires. 

The concept for the initiative grew out of a request from the leadership of Presto Products Company to Governor Robert F. McDonnell for a “workforce intervention” for the facility located in South Boston. 

With plans for a $6 million Halifax County expansion, Presto’s leadership called on Governor McDonnell for assistance in up-fitting the workforce to accommodate five new manufacturing lines, securing 338 incumbent jobs and adding 22 new jobs. Workforce Services@SVHEC collaborated with regional education and training partners to develop and coordinate the multi-faceted high-impact workforce-training program.

While Presto will serve as the pilot employer for the Workforce Readiness Initiative, the ultimate goal is to scale the project and make it available to employers throughout Southern Virginia.

 

Intensive, immersive educational experiences

One of the SVHEC’s unique assets is our R&D Center for Advanced Manufacturing & Energy Efficiency (R&D CAMEE). This advanced technology center houses a 5-axis CNC Machining Center, Water- and Laser-Jet Technologies, arranged in a cellular manufacturing configuration (Cellular manufacturing is the model in which work stations and equipment are arranged in a sequence that supports a smooth flow of materials through the production process with minimal transport or delay). 

We have developed a hands-on training solution that we call the intensive, immersive educational experience or I2E2 designed to bridge the skills gap. I2E2 is built on the premise that successful operations depend on interdisciplinary collaboration, from concept to design and engineering through production. During training, students are immersed in a hands-on, real-world manufacturing project, where the project is a vehicle for learning.

 

How I2E2 works

Mimicking the way team sports are coached, I2E2 instructors/coaches assign positions and use drills to develop individual and team performance. Player/learners are assigned positions on the “project” field, but play can be stopped at any time to address weaknesses, correct errors or engage in reflective discussion before resuming play.  By the time the project is completed, learners are “game-ready.” Not only have they honed the skills to effectively play their own positions, but learners also have a better understanding and appreciation of how all of the individual and collective roles impact the team and the final product. I2E2 is project-based, customizable, and scalable, and we believe one of the keys to developing the workforce needed to move Southern Virginia manufacturers ahead.

 

Conclusion

At the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center we believe that our concentration on employer-focused training and intensive, immersive educational experiences (I2E2) are crucial to meeting the identified skills gap. I would be remiss if I did not note that at the heart of these initiatives, and indeed all that we do, is collaboration. 

Partnering with business, industry, K-12, community colleges, four-year institutions, as well as public and private providers to develop and deliver relevant face-to-face and hands-on skills training is crucial. 

That’s why this Sept. 20 we will host a Workforce Forward Forum focused on advanced manufacturing’s return and the collaborative approaches to workforce readiness needed to overcome the skills gap. We’re excited to bring keynote speaker Harry Moser, founder of the Reshoring Initiative, to speak to the work he’s doing on the national level to bring off-shore jobs back to the U.S., and we’ll drill down on the local and regional challenges through panel discussions addressing the topics of manufacturing trendsetters, emerging manufacturing opportunities and educational trendsetters. 

I hope you’ll accept my personal invitation to join us on Sept. 20 for this meaningful discussion. 

Adams is the executive director at the SVHEC. Harris-Gayles is the communications and portfolio manager.