Land here, learn here

Strong partnerships between schools, agencies & the business community have made Southwest Washington a regional leader in education

Worker measures pipe

Michelle Giovannozzi, Corporate Relations Manager for Clark College’s Corporate and Continuing Education department, called Southwest Washington a “hub for training.” She said that “companies are coming to us on a regional basis.”

New programs and initiatives at many of the region’s post-secondary educational institutions are responding to this increased interest in education and training, which is in part sparked by skill gaps that exist in the regional workforce.

Caution – gap ahead

Job searchers looking for jobs and employers looking for employees may sound like a match made in heaven, but, said Giovannozzi, there is often a gap between the skills needed versus those possessed by workers. For example, the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council’s 2012 Manufacturing Workforce Survey indicates a shortage of workers with adequate problem solving, computer knowledge and basic technology, while 37 to 49 percent of manufacturers said soft skills were lacking.

A similar survey conducted by the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative in June 2012 indicates that for some job types, such as health information technicians, as much as 50 to 75 percent of workers were recruited from outside the region, and roughly 50 percent of health provider executives reported occupational, physical and respiratory therapists as “difficult” to find in the labor marketplace.

In STEM jobs, according to Jeanne Bennett, executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, there exists a large gap between the number of people who have the required math skills and the number of people needed.

Scott Keeney, president of local high-tech company nLight, said he sees gaps in science and engineering skills, as well as at the technician and operator level. Geri Robinson, manager of organization and employee development at Bingen-based Insitu Inc., said that because most high schools don’t offer vocational education classes anymore, basic production skills such as soldering are weak. Also, she said, project management skills tend to be lacking.

Mike Haas, technical service manager for Weyerhaeuser’s pulp and paper mill in Longview, said “We value STEM skills, but we also need people who have good problem solving and teamwork skills, and who can learn and adapt, and most important – who can work safely.”

“The skills that surround STEM, such as communication, teamwork and understanding STEM in a social/cultural context,” said Mel Netzhammer, Chancellor, WSU Vancouver, “are important to our business community. A student with the most incredible knowledge of electrical engineering only gets us so far if she can’t explain her research in terms that a lay person can understand.”

And, added Haas, soft skills are also important. He said it’s fairly easy to teach someone to be a paper maker. It’s much harder to teach them to show up on time, or have the willingness to work overtime to get the job done.

Bridging the gap

Educational institutions across the region are listening to what employers are saying, and are responding by adding new programs. For example, the Northwest Renewable Energy Institute was created several years ago in response to the surge in the region’s investment in wind energy (see Education Spotlight on page 4). Grant Winters, community outreach coordinator for Charter College, said they are considering adding trades-oriented programs such as HVAC and welding to their Vancouver campus offerings, based on input from professional advisory committees.

“We reached out to employers to find out their needs,” said Winters, in an effort “to make our curriculum something that employers want.”

Chris Bailey, president of Lower Columbia College (LCC) in Longview, said they have launched several key initiatives. To try and increase Cowlitz and Wahkaiakum counties’ four-year degree rate (which is half the state average) LCC is partnering with several other educational institutions (including Eastern WA University and WSU Vancouver) to offer several degrees.

Also, said Bailey, LCC is building a 69,000 square-foot, state-of-the art health and science building that he anticipates completing in the fall of 2014, and they are making their online programs accessible at area high schools, and ultimately to the community at large.

“We definitely have our foot on the gas,” said Bailey.

WSU Vancouver’s four-year EE program graduated its first set of 11 graduates last year, which Keeney called a “fantastic success story.” Netzhammer reported that the school will launch a hospitality business management program in 2014, in response to regional employer demand. In the near future, he added, they hope to add a unique, regionally-focused version of the “most requested program on our campus” – communications.

According to Giovannozzi, Clark will break ground on a new STEM building this fall; the college is also in the www phase of developing a patient health advocate program.

Building together

Increasingly, educational institutions are reaching out to the business community. For example, Bailey said that this summer, LCC will be expanding the scope of their corporate training department to design flexible courses for training incumbent workers, which he said can help cut industry training costs.

Netzhammer said that because WSU Vancouver’s Creative Media and Digital Culture program is deeply integrated into the business community, the program has one of the highest placement rates on campus. He also mentioned that the business program is piloting a model similar to that already used by the engineering department, to “facilitate the commercialization of the research that is happening on campus” and “build better public/private partnerships.”

Charter, said Winters, already has a well-established “externship” network for their medical program, which provides students with hands-on experience – and is looking to do the same thing with their IT, business and other programs. Winters said internship programs benefit students, but also give employers a chance to mold and educate potential job candidates.

Customized training is popular with local businesses. For example, John Rudi, president of Vancouver’s Thompson Metal Fab, said that his firm collaborated with Clark to create shop floor training for welding, blueprint reading, math and even personal finance and health. He said he had also worked with the SWWDC on foreman and project manager level training. Similarly, Robinson said that Insitu has worked with Clark to create supply chain, basic electronics and project management training, along with STEM activities.

Giovannozzi said that Clark has also partnered with the SWWDC, Columbia River Economic Development Council, Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board and the state Departments of Commerce and Labor to provide training in high-demand areas, as well as participates in the SW Washington Regional Health Alliance.

“We are involved in real-time relevant conversations about employment needs, training needs, what southwest Washington schools can do to bridge the gap,” said Giovannozzi.

The Cowlitz Wahkaiakum Career Development Consortium, said Haas, who serves on the organization’s board, is pursuing its mission is to “engage business and industry to align skills that are being taught with the skills that are needed in our area.” He said that at CWCDC business forums, which explore skill gaps experienced by employers, “the biggest thing we hear is soft skills – young people don’t know how to work.”

Therefore, he explained, the CWCDC is working to provide students with work opportunities. But, he said, the economic downturn has eroded the number of available summer jobs.

“This [Weyerhaeuser Longview] mill used to hire 100 high school students in the summer. That is no longer the case,” said Haas.

He said the CWCDC is striving to make it easier for small businesses in particular to mentor students and teach them the value of work and soft skills such as how to show up, be dependable, and follow directions. He said the CWCDC also helps students hone their interview skills.

Bennett said that the Columbia Willamette Workforce Collaborative – a combination of three regional workforce investment boards that represents six counties in the greater Portland/Vancouver area – is talking with employers, determining their needs and then working with community colleges to develop strategic education investment plans.

Where do we go from here?

Keeney supports the efforts to date to address the region’s skill gaps and create synergy between the educational and business communities. However, he said “we need to do more.” Rudi agreed, stating “If you’re going to grow, you have to have a mechanism for creating qualified workers.”

One suggestion Rudi put forth was to increase high school level trades training.

“[High] schools do a good job of teaching students to go the next level of education,” said Rudi. “But not everyone wants to or should go to college. Schools are missing a golden opportunity to set up trade schools that can help kids focus on their interests.”

The good thing, said Netzhammer, was that being an “educational hub” means that there is an “incredibly strong partnership” between all the players.

“We’re all partners moving in the same direction and trying to solve the same problems together. It’s exciting that the business community wants to be part of that,” concluded Netzhammer.

Skill gaps by the numbers

“Our state’s STEM economy is strong and will only grow stronger,” said Patrick D’Amelio, CEO of Washington STEM, a nonprofit that advances science, technology, engineering and math education across the state. “Yet we see a growing gap between the STEM jobs our economy is creating and the skills our students are learning. Prioritizing STEM education is critical for our students and the economic health of our communities and our state.”

  • Washington has the #1 STEM economy in the nation
  • The STEM skill gap in Washington is growing faster than in every state except one
  • Washington ranks #4 in the country for technology-based corporations but #46 for participation in science and engineering graduate programs
  • Only 30 percent of U.S. high school graduates are ready for college work in science
  • There are 25,000 jobs in WA that have been unfilled for three months or more due to lack of qualified candidates, with the majority in health care and STEM fields
  • If Washington fills the STEM skills gap, the state could gain 160,000 jobs by 2017

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Jodie Gilmore
Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.

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