Senator Debbie Stabenow invited a group of some 40 employers, local school, college and skilled trades group representatives to join her at Kent Career Tech Center this week to brainstorm about the work-talent gap.
“The hands-on, making things and building things piece that is critical to our economy, how do we make this cool?” Stabenow asked. “How do we get interest from parents and young people to think that this is a cool thing to do?”
Ravell Bowman spoke up right away: “Social media,” said the Tech Center marketing student. “If I could Snapchat this conversation right now, I totally would.”
The student perspective was welcome. Stabenow visited the Tech Center on Wednesday for a workforce roundtable discussion about how Kent ISD member districts and their community partners are working to assure students are getting skills they need to be successful in the workforce.
Stabenow said the roundtable fit well as part of a six-city week-long tour of small businesses across the state.
“I always ask businesses I meet with, ‘What is your No. 1 challenge?’” she said. “And without exception, they tell me it’s getting the skilled workers they need.”
She also wanted to hear about the barriers to success, and what lawmakers might be able to do to help.
“I know you are doing so much already, and that you know how important it is that we talk about careers beyond high school, and getting skills that do not necessarily involve four-year college,” she told the group. “I want to know what you need in terms of developing opportunities for recruiting young people and convincing their parents that there are wonderful choices in manufacturing, skilled trades, culinary, medical technology, that they may not be thinking about.”
For instance, Stabenow said it’s estimated there will be 3.5 million jobs created in manufacturing in the next seven years, but that 2 million of those could be vacant due to lack of skilled workers.
“I am very concerned that we are not getting the word out about these careers to young people, and that we’re not getting the word out soon enough,” she said. “I am very concerned that we are not going to have a growing economy unless we are ‘all hands on deck’ on this issue.”
Kent ISD’s Tech Center offers 20 programs at its main campus and at four satellite locations, making programs such as precision machining, culinary and health sciences available to districts that would not be able to offer these on their own. The program has close ties with the business community, and includes an advisory panel of professionals in every program that help shape curriculum and equipment decisions.
The ISD also has spearheaded a variety of career exploration and readiness programs including extensive job shadowing and MiCareerQuest, a one-day event that last year brought in some 9,000 middle and high-school students for a hands-on look at medical, technology, construction and manufacturing careers.
“Apprenticeships are something we are very willing to try to grow, said Ron Caniff, Kent ISD superintendent. “One of the barriers is that you have to be 18 to be an apprentice.”
Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College, praised West Michigan’s focus on collaboration that has led to initiatives like early/middle college programs as that will award two-year degrees upon high-school graduation in a career-focused curriculum at no cost.
As for what is left to do, “When we have business partners say ‘we need a workforce,’ and we work with neighborhoods where we know people need work, we’ve got a disconnect,” Pink said.
Gov. Rick Snyder toured the Tech Center in July with a handful of members of the Legislature to put his signature on the $56 billion state budget for fiscal year 2018, which includes record spending on K-12 schools. There is a hefty investment in career and technical education programs such as those offered at the Tech Center.
Breaking Down the Barriers
DeWys Manufacturing President Jon DeWys said his company obtained a waiver from the state to have students see what it’s like to work in a real manufacturing setting.
“Whenever we can bring relevancy to young people, bring them into shops, bring them into factories… they’re not exposed to a lot of this stuff,” he said. “The sooner we can engage them the better for all of us”
He also wants to get K-12 teachers involved, as his company did recently with six social studies teachers from Coopersville.
“That’s where we’re missing the boat,” he said. “We have these silos — schools, manufacturing, construction — where students are stuck in those four walls, and you’ve got to follow this structured curriculum, and busing is an issue. How do you get them out? How do you get the teachers and parents exposed? Construction and manufacturing are high tech now, and people can make really decent money. Those are some barriers we’ve got to break down.”
Northview Schools Superintendent Scott Korpak added to those comments. He called tech center students “ ‘the gifted and talented AP kids of careers,’ but we have a marketing and branding issue. We’ve been driven so much to quantitative test results, we haven’t provided the relevance.”
Other barriers discussed included the high cost of busing students, the need for more career counselors, making community college more affordable or even free, and prohibitions against those with extensive job skills but not advanced degrees to teach at colleges and universities that have trades programs.
While schools work to give students skills and career exploration, businesses need to acknowledge that those opportunities aren’t the only barriers to filling the talent pipeline.
Kenyatta Brame, executive vice president at Cascade Engineering and a Grand Rapids Community College trustee, also attended the discussion. As those in technical and maintenance positions at the manufacturer prepare to retire, “to be honest, we’re having difficulty recruiting people to replace them,” he said.
Brame helped pioneer The Source, an employer resource network that helps companies find solutions to barriers identified by employees such as transportation and child care.
He thinks businesses — even those that consider themselves competitors — “need to get together more. We need to have more systematic solutions because what’s good for me is good for everybody. And it’s in all our best interests as employers that we are connected to the schools. If GRPS is not doing well, in a few years I am going to start feeling that pain because the pool I am looking for gets smaller and smaller.”