RALEIGH Momentum is building in North Carolina to better train workers for more sophisticated manufacturing jobs to erase a so-called skills gap in the workforce.
At a Raleigh summit Friday hosted by the N.C. Community College System, business, government and education leaders brainstormed ways to pump up training and education programs to meet the state’s reawakening manufacturing sector.
Meanwhile, at a separate event in Apex, a Triangle consortium of businesses and private schools launched an engineering apprenticeship program for high school students.
North Carolina’s unemployment rate finally dropped below 9 percent in April, but it is still stubbornly high compared with other states; at the same time, some employers can’t find workers with the right kind of skills to fill today’s increasingly technical jobs.
The state has the fourth-largest manufacturing economy in the nation, accounting for about 10 percent of North Carolina’s jobs. But that doesn’t mean people who used to do textile and furniture work are prepared for complex jobs in biotechnology, computer-integrated machining and race car technology.
Scott Ralls, community college system president, said the system is working to create a garden where new skills can flourish. It has joined with the Washington-based Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, to implement a national skills certification system and to recruit students into manufacturing-related programs.
In the past two years, community colleges have revamped 80 technical programs to promote certification in a wide range of skills. Thousands of faculty participated in the effort, Ralls said, with many gaining new training to be able to teach the new programs.
“A lot of the focus is around this notion of how you incorporate and integrate industry-defined skill standards,” Ralls said
“So we’re not just talking about degrees, although our students get degrees, but how they can get industry-recognized credentials simultaneously,” he continued. “That’s a benefit for industry because they can clearly see what the competencies are, and it’s a benefit for us because we clearly know what the targets are. It’s a benefit for our students because they have both an academic credential and a very clear industry-defined credential.”
A new funding model adopted a couple of years ago puts more resources into those programs.
Gov. Pat McCrory attended the event Friday and declared his support. He said he’d like to focus more toward the high-level skill programs, which are generally more expensive to deliver.
“You get rewarded even if you have a high-cost class, and yet your graduates in the high-cost class get jobs,” he said. “That’s our goal right now. We’re tired of seeing graduates in any sector of education not have a skill to get jobs.”
McCrory said he’s gotten flack for past statements about that, but he believes such a plan is in the long-term best interest of the state.
“I’m bullish on manufacturing in North Carolina,” McCrory said, mentioning his father, an engineer who moved his family from Ohio for a manufacturing job here in the 1960s. “I think manufacturing is still the niche that’s going to help North Carolina get out of this very difficult recession. ... If we quit making things and we think we can live only off the service industry, our economy is in trouble. It is not sustainable.”
Also on Friday, a Triangle apprenticeship program for engineering students was announced by Thales Academy, which has three locations in Wake County. So far, 15 industry partners have joined the effort.
The consortium hopes to bring in other public, private and charter schools with a math, science and engineering focus, said Kent Misegades, director of development at Thales Academy.
Students would begin the three-year program in their junior year of high school, taking an engineering-influenced curriculum and working for pay during spring and summer breaks at one of the companies. Then, the student would attend a community college, working toward a two-year associate degree while working for the same company.
After three years, the students would have a high school diploma, three years of work experience and an associate degree paid for by the company. A full-time job offer would almost certainly result, Misegades said.
The program is based on the Swiss model, he said, pointing out that in some European countries, nearly half of the working population has been through an apprenticeship. “If we can do this in this state, we are so far ahead of everyone else,” he said. “I don’t know why we don’t have more apprenticeship programs in the U.S. We used to.”
The program dovetails with McCrory’s goal of more closely tying education to jobs.
But even the blue-collar jobs of tomorrow require more education.
“What has changed, certainly, is the sophistication of industry. In the past you could take a high school graduate into a mill or a furniture (factory),” Misegades said, “and you could probably teach him what he needed to know within six months to a year. And the math wasn’t all that difficult. Today it’s completely different. The level of sophistication in any industry today is just mind-boggling.”
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