Stuck in a 'skills gap'

Lab technician Roger Avita at work at Ultra Scientific in North Kingstown, R.I. The company is looking to add 15 to 20 employees over the next year but is having difficulty finding qualified workers. "I honestly think there's a large swath of unemployable," the company president says.
Lab technician Roger Avita at work at Ultra Scientific in North Kingstown, R.I. The company is looking to add 15 to 20 employees over the next year but is having difficulty finding qualified workers. "I honestly think there's a large swath of unemployable," the company president says. (STEPHAN SAVOIA / Associated Press)
Posted: July 02, 2011

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - John Russo's chemical lab in North Kingstown has been growing in recent years, even in the deflated economy, and he expects to add 15 to 20 more positions to his 49 employees over the next year.

But Russo, president of Ultra Scientific Analytical Solutions, is struggling to fill openings that require specialized training in a state where the jobless rate in May was 10.9 percent, the third-highest in the nation.

"It's very difficult to find the right person. I honestly think there's a large swath of unemployable," said Russo, whose firm about 25 miles south of Providence manufactures and supplies analytical standards. "They don't have any skills at all."

Russo's view reflects the so-called skills gap, a national problem that has left businesses without a crucial pipeline of the skilled workers they need in a rapidly changing economy.

States from Rhode Island to Washington are taking steps to address the gap. Michigan launched a "No Worker Left Behind" initiative, allowing unemployed or low-wage workers to get up to $10,000 in free tuition for community-college study or other training.

Several state legislatures have passed bills creating "lifelong learning accounts," which help workers save for education, training, or apprenticeships. The Aspen Institute is spearheading a national campaign that aims to do something that has not happened nearly enough: Get community colleges and employers talking.

The need for such efforts, experts say, is enormous.

In a major report in February, Harvard University highlighted what it called the "forgotten half" of young adults who are unprepared to enter the workforce. Some drop out of high school. Some who finish can't afford college. And some who can afford it find that what they have learned in college or vocational programs does not match employers' demands.

"Our system for preparing young adults is broken," said William Symonds, director of the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. "We're not saying that the system is failing everybody, but it is leaving a lot of young people behind."

Educators and business leaders say that a "college education for all" mentality is no longer realistic, if ever it was. Many positions - known as "middle-skill" jobs - don't require a degree from a four-year institution. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates there will be 47 million job openings in the decade ending in 2018. Nearly half will require only an associate's degree.

Career- and technical-education programs, once derided as being for those who couldn't cut it academically, offer one path. But growing those programs has not been a national priority, and their quality is inconsistent at best. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called career and technical education the "neglected stepchild" of education reform.

Rep. James Langevin (D., R.I.), who cochairs the bipartisan Career and Technical Education Caucus in Congress, wants to change that. He has pushed to expand federal funding for such programs so they can offer state-of-the-art technology and equipment.

His cochairman, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R., Pa.), points to the story of Tricia Reich, 18, who graduated in June from the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology, near State College. The school trains students in such skills as heavy-equipment operation, dental assisting, building construction, and landscape design.

In the automotive-technology program, Reich learned how a car works. She spent her third and final year not in the classroom but working at an auto dealership, at first earning $8 an hour as a service writer. She is now employed at a dealership that sells and services Mercedes, Volvos, and Audis, saving money in hopes of attending community college.

Reich said programs such as hers gave students "a leg up" in the real world. "It's definitely a big plus," she said.

But at Ultra Scientific, it took Russo more than six months to fill one of the available jobs. And experts say the skills gap is likely to become even more acute as the economy picks up.

"If we don't address this skills problem, American businesses will lack the world-class workforce needed to compete at a global level, and many Americans will remain out of work, instead of accessing the high-quality jobs of today and tomorrow," said Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive who is advisory-board chair of the Aspen Institute's skills-gap campaign.

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