The problem with “college for all”

CREDC, Skills Center and others working to help students better understand the pathways to a career

Dennis Kampe

“Forty percent of college grads are unemployed or underemployed. If we don’t watch out, we’ll have the most highly educated unemployed people in the nation.”

This dramatic statement encapsulates Dennis Kampe’s view of the current “college for all” culture that permeates the Washington state education system. Kampe is the retired director of the Clark County Skills Center.

“Let me be clear – I’m not against a four-year post-secondary education,” said Kampe, “but it’s not the only pathway.”

According to Kampe, only 13 percent of Washington high school seniors took a career and technical education (CTE) class in 2015, compared to 26 percent in 2005. But, he said, 57 percent of the available jobs in Washington require technical skills – and those jobs are going unfilled. Nationwide, 7 million skilled jobs are unfilled, and this is expected to double in six years.

“Employers are starving for skilled employees,” Kampe continued. “I’m inundated with people who need plumbers, diesel technicians, etc. – our [Skills Center] graduates are scooped up.”

Kampe is not alone in his assessment of the need for skilled workers. In a 2015 statement, the Washington State Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board stated that “[regional economic] success will depend on a skilled workforce. What employers do not have available are workers with the right skills and such jobs go unfilled.”

More than 80 percent of construction companies are having a hard time finding qualified workers, according to a Sept. 2015 survey of 1,386 companies by the Associated General Contractors of America.

The problem, said Kampe, lies in the way the Washington State Board of Education has defined graduation requirements.

“A student that wants to be in auto tech is too busy to take the classes they need,” Kampe stated.

“I completely agree – a four-year degree is not the right path for everyone,” said Dr. Renny Christopher, vice chancellor for academic affairs at WSU Vancouver. However, she continued, we must be careful with the message that ‘degrees are not for everyone,’ being sure not to exclude historically under-represented minority groups and low income groups.

“[Going to college or not] needs to be free choice not preconditioned by someone’s race or socioeconomic status,” Christopher stated.

Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC), said “We see a spread of jobs, many of which don’t require advanced degrees but do require training and skill sets. The Washington state educational system needs to better articulate that there are more paths.”

Culturally, said Christopher, going to college has been considered more prestigious.
“There’s not a widespread belief that there are good, rewarding jobs available to those without a degree – we need to adjust our attitudes,” she added.

But Christopher cautioned that we must remember that education should not be solely focused on career pathways.

“We need to navigate an increasingly complex and changing world – and need to have a basic foundation in literacy and scientific understanding to do that,” said Christopher.

In the end, she stated, “It’s not two sides in opposition – they are complementary.

“I’m a first-gen college student, my brother has had a good career without a degree and reads a lot of books, and I have a Ph.D. and can do carpentry,” she added. “You can do both things.”

“What I see from the business side,” said Jeanne Bennett, executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council (SWWDC), “is that we need many different training options.”

Bennett said 30 percent of jobs in Southwest Washington require a bachelor’s degree or above and many of those jobs are going unfilled because companies cannot find enough engineers – so there are “very good reasons to get a bachelor’s degree.” But, said Bennett, companies are also having trouble finding skilled employees.

Solving this paradox, said Bomar, requires teamwork. The CREDC, Skills Center and the SWWDC, among others, are working together to help students understand what their options are and be prepared for whatever pathway they choose. (See the sidebar for a description of three specific programs).

Bomar, who is the chair-elect for the Skills Center advisory board and who has served on the chancellery board at WSU Vancouver, said that teachers, counselors and parents should be made aware of what those pathways are. He hopes to help the Skills Center continue to build strong relationships with specific industries who have skill set needs that are not met by the regular school system and design programs that align with business demand.

Kampe believes the K-12 system should similarly align their education opportunities with the business community’s needs.

“When students leave high school they are unprepared for work,” said Kampe. The state education board has now created an “opt out” program that opens the door for students to take more CTE classes, but it is not well advertised and students may not know it exists, according to Kampe. Bennet said that schools are exploring creative ways to open more doors for students, such as counting computer technology as a math credit.

Bennett reminded businesses that they have an important role to play in bridging the gap between the current situation and a solution.

“Schools need to help students understand what pathways are available,” said Bennett, “but businesses need to accept people with less experience and help continue their training.”

Kampe shared an anecdote about one local company who was looking for employees with technical skills. Since the typical high school graduate doesn’t even have soft skills (showing up on time, working in a team environment), the company began to recruit through the football team – because they knew those students were familiar with hard work, teamwork and discipline. Then the company invested in training those students for the specific skills they needed.

Bennett said there are some disconnects between the skills required for a job and what HR puts on the job description. Bennett told of one local company that said applicants must have 12th-grade math abilities. But some teachers went into the industry and analyzed the required skill set and found that in actuality only 4th-grade math was necessary.

“Businesses really need to think about what they need,” she said, instead of simply requiring “xyz skills” and five years’ experience.

“The SWWDC can help train people, but if companies won’t hire them without experience, we’re stuck.”

She said the SWWDC can help companies create job-matching tests for a specific job and encouraged more companies to take advantage of the National Career Readiness Certification (CERT).

As in Kampe’s football-recruiting story, she said that the SWWDC is seeing more companies investing in internal training. For example, when FritoLay bought new machines recently, the SWWDC helped pay for a portion of the training for employees.

So, perhaps the tide is changing, both from the top down, and the bottom up, to help students be prepared for all their opportunities in the new economy.

“We must start preparing students to be successful adults not successful college applicants,” said Kampe, a thought echoed by both Bomar and Bennet.

“Kids need a compass and sometimes a lamp to help them get the training that they need for their future,” said Bomar.

“Any education is valuable, and there isn’t one right choice for how a person gains that education,” concluded Bennett. “It has to be a continuum of options. If we only tell them ‘go to college’ we‘re not giving them the options they need.”

Resources and opportunities

The Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council (SWWDC) is helping develop more opportunities for businesses to connect to young people and vice versa – so students have a better idea of what is available in those businesses. For example, said Jeanne Bennett, executive director of the SWWDC, if you ask an average student what jobs are available at a hospital, the responses are doctor and nurse. In reality, there are more than 300 job titles at a hospital and not all require a four-year degree. Three programs are of note:

YouthWorks

This career exploration tool connects K-12 students to businesses. Kids can ask questions such as “what sort of engineers do you hire?” and “How do you become an engineer?” Other information about where you go to take civil engineering classes, how much a particular job pays and related jobs. YouthWorks is a state funded program, but the SWWDC’s database is unique in the amount of information it provides. To register your organization or business with the program, contact Lance Carter, Youth Business Services Coordinator for WorkSource, at 360.735.4981 or lcarter@esd.wa.gov.

Business After School

This program helps young adults explore high-growth industries and gather information about career opportunities and skills they’ll need to obtain jobs. Four times a year, businesses host on-site activities, focused on a particular career path. In February, MacKay Sposito and CID Bioscience will be host Engineering week. May will focus on healthcare, October on manufacturing and December on technology. Businesses can find out how to be part of this exciting partnership at http://www.business-after-school.org/.

STEM Network

This effort focuses on creating stronger math, science, engineering and technology opportunities in the Vancouver, Evergreen and Camas school district high schools, along with Clark College and WSU Vancouver. The goal is to fill existing gaps in available training. Bennett said that the Network was beginning to build into middle and grade schools as well. To learn more, visit http://swstemnetwork.org/.

For more information about how the SWWDC can help with skills testing and training, contact Bennett at jbennett@swwdc.org.

Another opportunity for businesses to support the education of our youth is by donations to the Clark County Skills Center. Let’s face it – technology is expensive, but keeping up with modern technology is critical to the Center’s success. According to retired Skills Center director Dennis Kampe, funding for career and technical education has decreased steadily – the Center hasn’t received any increases for supplies or operating costs since 2009. To learn more, contact Kampe at denniskampe@live.com or visit http://www.ccskillscenter.com/foundation.html.

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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.