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Diversifying Pathways to Manufacturing Careers: Moving the Needle and Shrinking the Skills Gap

The EvoLLLution | College In The Aviation Capital Of The World: How One Institution Is Shrinking The Skills Gap
Finding ways to broaden access to technical education is essential to close wide skills gaps and create pathways to lasting careers in a fast-changing manufacturing sector.

Wichita, in the middle of the country, in the middle of Kansas, is the aviation capital of the world.

We are home to Bombardier (makers of Learjet), Textron Aviation (builders of Cessna, Beechcraft and Hawker airplanes) and Spirit AeroSystems, the world’s largest first-tier aerostructures manufacturer and our largest employer. It was part of Boeing before visionary leaders spun it off on its own more than 10 years ago. Today Spirit AeroSystems designs, tests and manufactures fuselages and other large components for Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Mitsubishi and Rolls-Royce.

Together, these manufacturers employ more than 20,000 people locally. Every day they search for highly skilled technical workers, from sheet metal to avionics to aerospace mechanics to people who paint those shiny new planes.

As a technical college in Wichita, we at WSU Tech listen to business and industry—especially aviation and advanced manufacturers—to understand the changing needs of their workforce and provide programs that meet those needs.

To say we are at the tip of the spear of the skilled worker crisis is an understatement. Considering that one job at Spirit AeroSystems translates to three additional jobs in our economy, the need for skilled workers—and the programs to train them—keep me up at night. At our technical college, we are focused on how we get enough people recruited, trained and transitioned into these well-paying jobs that drive our local economy.

And then I think about the six million manufacturing jobs needed to be filled nationwide.

That is why I feel privileged to be part of the newly formed America’s Workforce Policy Advisory Board. The board is comprised of subject-matter experts primed for this role—colleagues from the private sector, employers and educational institutions. While challenging, advising the federal government on how we can improve education, training and re-training for American workers is a challenge I welcome.

We have long needed a chance to reframe and redesign education and training for skilled jobs in our country, so that more people understand 21st-century skills are different than those needed a generation or two ago. These are technical jobs that incorporate artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, and much more, to ensure manufacturing and other industries succeed in an increasingly competitive world.

At WSU Tech, we are proud to work alongside our public and private colleges and universities, as well as our public and private K-12 school districts, to prepare the workforce for today and tomorrow.

It’s an ongoing effort and we are proud of the accomplishments to date, including:

Wichita Promise: A scholarship program that pays tuition and fees for specific high-wage, high-demand jobs, and guarantees a job interview upon completion. Funded by donations from local businesses and the college’s foundation, more than 700 students have gone through the program.

Wichita Promise MOVE: A scholarship program designed to break down barriers for people who live outside the Wichita area and who are willing and able to relocate to start a new career. The scholarship pays tuition and fees for eligible programs at WSU Tech, relocation expenses, cost-of-living expenses while in the program and offers a potential sign-on bonus upon completion. A total of 50 people signed up for the first phase of this program, funded by the Wichita Community Foundation. A second phase, funded through redirected funds within WSU Tech, is scheduled to kick off in March.

Aviation Pathway: A new high school aviation curriculum and partnership between Wichita Public Schools, WSU Tech and our aviation industries. Starting this past year, high school students take classes at their home high school, as well as on the WSU Tech National Center for Aviation Training campus and will have the opportunity to receive their high school diploma and technical certificate at graduation, with the potential for immediate employment within the aviation industry.

In addition, a recent grant from the Metallica Scholars Initiative allows us to advance our Women in Manufacturing program, designed to attract women into the careers available in the manufacturing industry.

We believe these programs demonstrate it is time to think beyond the traditional delivery of education and training programs.

I look forward to sharing what we’ve learned with the Advisory Board and the National Council for the American Worker, and to bring ideas back home so we can continue to redefine lifelong learning for the economic benefit of our community and our country.

This is difficult work, but it is critical as we build the future workforce to fuel the economy of the United States.

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