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How the Workforce Skills Gap is Placing Increased Focus on Technical Education

The EvoLLLution | How the Workforce Skills Gap is Placing Increased Focus on Technical Education
The return of middle-skill career paths to the U.S. economy is renewing the demand for career-focused learning and technical education.

The call to action is clear. The U.S. workforce has an immediate, and critical, demand for skilled labor to sustain our nation’s economic growth, and higher education is being called upon to produce job-ready graduates to satisfy this demand.

The aging concept that there is a career-path chasm between manual labor and a four-year academic degree, has been bridged by the return of manufacturing to the U.S. economy and emerging advanced manufacturing, energy, robotics, and automation sectors.

This skill gap has caused preconceived concepts of academic and vocational career paths to converge around a demand for a modern, middle-skilled workforce. These hybrid career paths are designed to build a modern workforce prepared to fill a growing need for knowledge-based, technology-driven job creation.

As traditional, four-year colleges and trade schools evaluate new pathways to address changing employer and student needs, companies are increasingly partnering with career technical schools to shape the blend of academic and practical education needed to provide the skills of workforce-ready graduates.

Understanding the success and strategic positioning of modern technical education can provide valuable insight to aligning curricula to more effectively prepare graduates for the workforce.

Aligning with State Economic Goals

The emergence of a new, tech-enabled economy in Pennsylvania has re-invigorated the state’s long-dormant manufacturing roots. According to a PA Workforce Assessment Study, there will be 590,000 new and replacement jobs in Pennsylvania through 2026, with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs growing at over 9%.

Specifically, among these STEM job opportunities, the Pennsylvania Center for Advanced Manufacturing Careers estimates that the state will need up to 17,000 additional skilled workers during the next decade.

To help students and workers prepare for the changing workforce, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed HB 265 (Act 76) of 2019 to expand access to career and technical education to ensure the state can accommodate employer needs.

The focus of the legislation is to cultivate educational opportunities for students in Pennsylvania while emphasizing the importance of career and technical education in fulfilling workforce readiness.

The act sets forth a path for more flexible and relevant career education that is responsive to the workforce needs of our state with a special focus on partnerships and apprenticeships. This initiative spotlights career-focused educational institutions, like Pittsburgh Technical College (PTC).

To ensure the sustainability of tech-enabled industries in Pennsylvania, PTC has partnered with employers in the state, and nationally, to develop clear pathways to bridge the gap between career and technical education and workforce development in Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh Technical College is a regionally accredited leader in private non-profit higher-education committed to student-centered learning. PTC consists of nine academic schools and more than thirty career-focused programs awarding certificates and associate and bachelor’s degrees in competitive fields.

The curricula within these programs are shaped by prominent employer advisory boards throughout the region. Working with these employers, the academic programs are driven by project-based, hands-on experiential learning with state-of-the-industry technology that mirror workplace scenarios.

This experiential learning is put into practice as part of academic requirements. All PTC’s on-site, degree-seeking students are required to have industry internships (or clinical rotations). Innovative efforts to embrace new opportunities for industry apprenticeships are also expanding.

Small-sized classes and dynamic lab activities enable programs to be responsive to emerging industry needs, ensuring students are job-ready immediately upon graduation.

Reaching Beyond Traditional Recruitment

The success of these programs is reflected in the consistently high in-field placement rates of greater than 95% for program graduates. This success breeds continued demand. To meet this growing need for job-ready graduates, we are mirroring state initiatives to attract and supply top-tier talent to fulfill state workforce needs.

At PTC, we recently launched a national engagement initiative to build a pipeline to attract, educate and retain job-ready graduates who are prepared to make an immediate workforce impact. This engagement initiative is built to increase our thought leadership visibility as a means of attracting top talent to programs with the aim of placing them in the local economy.

This is further accentuated through the development of workforce training programs. The state’s strong manufacturing ties leave a legacy workforce with many of the industry skills for employment, but lacking the advanced skills to compete in modern, tech-enabled manufacturing. Through development of a corporate college model, providing just-in-time training programs, workforce skills programs and stackable credentials, PTC is broadening the pool of workforce-ready talent while building resources to continue to grow with industry demand.

Returning Value to the Students  

The success of learning pathways is measured by their ability to be applied. Students expect, and deserve, education to provide value. Therefore, it is incumbent upon higher education providers to prepare students for career success. Programming that aligns curricula and workforce experience provides high-impact entryways into the job market and avoids “buyers regret” that may arise when the workplace does not reflect the educational experience.

Technical colleges are uniquely positioned at the confluence of academic and vocational skills. Through the incorporation of apprentice-like internships, technical colleges create clear pathways to career opportunity, giving students meaningful industry experience and connections before they graduate.

The modern workforce is a dynamic concept requiring an adaptable pipeline of education providers to align with technological advances and societal needs. Technical education enables the development of skills and knowledge needed to qualify for a rapidly changing economy.

Hands-on training and education provide assurance to students and employers alike that graduates are equipped to handle the changing nature of a given field. For many emerging fields, a high school education may not be enough, while a traditional four-year degree may not be necessary. Associate degrees or industry certificates enable the flexibility to meet the needs of an evolving workforce while providing graduates a strong foundation for success.

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