This week, The Atlantic highlighted the gap between what skills employers need and what skills potential employees actually have—a topic local leaders have also been discussing.
Even though the national unemployment rate is at 7.4 percent, some employers can't find people to fill certain jobs because of the skills gap.
In an article from National Journal, writer Amy Sullivan interviewed René Bryce-Laporte, the outgoing program manager for Skills for America's Future, which is a policy initiative run out of the Aspen Institute.
Click here to read that article on the skills gap.
Last week, a panel of local business and community leaders took up the same topic.
Dr. Jim Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State Community College; Sebastian Patta, head of human resources at Volkswagen Chattanooga; and Rick Smith, superintendent of Hamilton County schools; discussed related issues with moderator and Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President Ron Harr at a Rotary Club meeting.
And a few days prior to the Rotary Club meeting, local leaders highlighted the skills gap and what Volkswagen and Chattanooga State leaders have been doing to close it.
A 12-member inaugural graduating class of the Volkswagen Academy Automation Mechatronics Program recently became the first Americans ever to earn certification from the German Chambers of Commerce, which authorizes the graduates to work in Germany and elsewhere around the world.
There are about 600,000 open jobs in the United States because of the skills gap, leaders said at the VW graduation.
At that time, Patta said that Volkswagen is committed to training a workforce with the most advanced knowledge possible.
The National Journal article also addresses the role of community colleges in eliminating the skills gap.
Below are five takeaways from the Rotary Club discussion.
Addressing specific industries
Business leaders from companies such as Volkswagen and Wacker have partnered with Chattanooga State to provide industry-specific training.
The Volkswagen Academy Automation Mechatronics Program is an example of that.
And leaders said that's one way community colleges can help close the gap.
"The workforce in Chattanooga has been a key factor in the factory's success," Patta said.
If Volkswagen leaders had to recruit again for expansion at the Enterprise South plant, he's confident they could repeat that success, he said.
Despite the recent focus nationally and locally on STEM education, Smith said that one of the biggest problems he sees is literacy.
Hamilton County schools leaders are in the process of developing a K-12 literacy framework to help correct this problem, he said.
"Right now, in Hamilton County schools, our challenge is literacy," he said. "We were intentional in things we did in terms of Central Office support [for literacy]."
Another area in which students are lacking is critical thinking, Smith said.
Educators have been shocked that, even when they gave students the answers on a critical reasoning test, some still struggled to understand.
"Students come to us and they really don't possess those critical reasoning skills, which are essential to functioning in any work environment," he said.
The recent graduates from the Automation Mechatronics Program worked within a dual system.
The principle of "learning while doing" is what guides the dual education system, which has a long European history.
Participants of the program split time between classroom simulation laboratories and the production floor.
Leaders said that the mix of theoretical and practical lessons helps students fully transfer knowledge and experience to ensure that the company's standards are maintained over time.
Another key to that system in Germany is that students are often finished with school and ready to work—after making money in their apprenticeship program—by 19 or 20 years old, Patta said.
And Harr said that when he visited Germany he was impressed by how focused and diligent the young adults were.
Smith said that local educators are working to expose students to a career path at an earlier age.
"We are trying to prepare our students at a much younger time," he said. "We are working with the business community to get our kids to begin—earlier than [when they are juniors] in high school—thinking about what they want to do in life."
Leaders also addressed complaints that colleges and universities in the United States don't allow for easy transfer or "stacking" of credits.
Smith said that many university systems are totally separate and have their own standards.
But that often means that students who start somewhere like Chattanooga State have to retake classes when they move on to pursue another higher degree. And that can be a hindrance.
Smith said that Hamilton County educators are working to create dual enrollment and other bridge programs to correct that problem.
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