I recently participated in an interesting panel discussion put on by Gateway to College about ensuring that disadvantaged youth are prepared to enter the global workforce. Gateway to College is a non-profit organization that works to support communities in building sustainable pathways for disconnected youth to obtain high school diplomas and meaningful college credentials.  Other panel members included Sue Haley, VP of Human Resources from Vigor Industrial, Marc Goldberg of Portland Community College, and Jay Schmidt of Silicon Forest Electronics.  Each of us shared a different perspective of the challenges facing both manufacturing and technology companies in Oregon and nationally in filling the skills gap with qualified workers. 

To start, the panel discussed that a skills gap does exist in both manufacturing and technology fields that is created by the retirement of skilled manufacturing and technical professionals, and the lack of desire of youth who are graduating from high school to enter the manufacturing field.  In addition, for both the manufacturing and technology fields, the panel recognized that youth entering the workforce do not have sufficient math skills, work experience, or computer programing skills to perform the jobs currently available.  There was recognition that youth, and especially disadvantaged youth, need additional training in basic math and other skills.  In addition, due to budget cuts across various school districts, youth are not regularly being either introduced to, or provided with, opportunities to participate in technical skills training programs that would provide, at the very least, an entrée into these career paths.

The panelists also discussed the various measures that individual companies, for example, Vigor and Boeing, are taking to provide skills training opportunities for youth as a pipeline to jobs within those organizations.  There are also opportunities for youth to obtain skills to enter these fields provided by community college programs, such as PCC’s Career Pathways program, which provides certifications that will lead to a degree and jobs in the manufacturing and technology fields.  Other efforts at training youth to fill the pipeline for these jobs are being provided by other organizations, such as the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative, which among other initiatives, pursues resources to fill workforce gaps through youth internships and training.  Because there is no one statewide effort aimed at these issues, non-profits and individual manufacturing companies are doing what they can to provide career training to fill the pipeline with trained youth.  Further, it was recognized that while involvement of manufacturing and technology companies is needed as part of the solution to the skills gap, this is not a permanent fix.  When the economy is up, manufacturers have the time and money to sponsor interns within their organizations, and to hire youth into the pipeline, but this drive wanes when the economy takes a dip, leaving a significant hole in the career training partnership.

The takeaway for me from this panel discussion was that there is a lot of good work being done by good organizations around this issue, but it is piecemeal and does not adequately address the issue statewide.  Another takeaway was that efforts on the state level to concentrate and promote Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (“STEM”) and Career Technical Education (“CTE”) throughout the state are crucial to solve the severe shortage of skilled manufacturing and computer programing workers that Oregon will need as we prepare for workplaces of the future.  

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