Can our educational system fill the skills gap?

Joel Leonard advocates funding of quality vocational programs.

By Joel Leonard, contributing editor

Recently, our nation’s president was proclaiming that we need to develop 10,000 engineers each year and that we need to develop more strategies and approaches to reduce energy costs. No, I didn’t write his speech, but it’s amazing that the highest position in the land now recognizes the value contribution of skilled engineers and technicians. Hallelujah.

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However, on that same day of the president’s speech in Durham, North Carolina, to advance the U.S. skills pool, I got a call from a vocational instructor informing me that his school system is reducing his employment to part-time status because of low enrollments in his metals class, which will force him to quit.

This is the same instructor that garnered the attention of a Gates Foundation New York Times documentary on technical schools. This instructor has students in colleges and in technical schools, but most importantly working at numerous industrial operations.

I still can’t believe that school administrators are so short-sighted to allow students who have no maturity, knowledge or experience to help decide which vocational classes to offer and totally ignore the needs of the area’s employers who are begging for qualified technicians.

As opposed to just saying, “too bad,” I’ve been on a major campaign to area school board members, city councils, county commissioners, state legislators, U.S. senators, radio stations, television stations and newspaper outlets to reevaluate the educational process. If we’re not careful, we’ll never reach the presidential objectives.

If we leave it up to kids to determine vocational curriculum, we’ll have a nation of singers, dancers and perhaps cosmetologists. We need industry to stand up to help our instructors fight these budget battles. Otherwise, regardless of political rhetoric, we’ll not have a pipeline of qualified talent we desperately need to grow and compete.

If we leave it up to kids to determine vocational curriculum, we’ll have a nation of singers, dancers, and perhaps cosmetologists.

What are you doing about it? Have you been to your Career Technical Education (CTE) Center? Are you on its industry advisory board? Are you tuned into its vocational plans and direction? Is your local school system generating the volume and quality needed to serve your company and your community? Are budget cuts negatively affecting the school performance level? Are your technical instructors getting adequate support from industry?

Until we can close the gap between the aspirations of our youth and the current and future needs of our major employers, we’ll continue to have serious skills gaps in our workforce, critical jobs will go unfilled and our nation’s competitiveness level will be diminished. So please, please, stand up for our future.

Despite our president’s recent epiphany, finding groups that fully understand the challenges and implement strategies are still rare. That’s why my trip to the Lincoln Electric Automation Facility was so refreshing. Feel free to visit www.skilltv.net and see my videos with Lincoln’s leadership. They gave me unfettered access to their development lab, and I got to see the latest and future automated laser welding technology. These new systems are enabling companies to move back to the United States and fabricate quality inch-wide welds cheaper and much faster than the cheap labor outlets overseas.

Also, I got to see the latest enhancements of the VRTEX 360, virtual welding simulation technology that is converting gamers into welders. I applaud Lincoln Electric for taking a serious lead in pushing these initiatives forward. Also, Honeywell Process Solutions is working to simplify process control systems meanwhile developing more robust applications to provide remote control.

Although it’s wonderful to receive top leadership support, without activism at the grassroots level, quality vocational programs won’t receive the funding they need.

Email Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at joel@skilltv.net.

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