‘Career Pathway’ update: how long before the MFG talent pipeline improves?

By Jo O’Brien | May 13, 2014

In 2013, Colorado House Bill 1165 - “career pathway” legislation - funded a process to bring industry and higher education together to improve the quality and quantity of the region's advanced manufacturing workforce.

In the first of a series on outcomes relating to 1165, CompanyWeek spoke with Jo O’Brien, Career Pathway Lead for the Colorado Community College System (CCCS). O’Brien is an industry coordinator working on behalf of the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing industry at CCCS. Her work focus is “to deliberately connect student school expectations to experiences valued in the workplace”.

O’Brien responded to questions about a report released in mid-April, feedback from the five regional business and education “micro-summits” held in Pueblo, Montrose, Grand Junction, Denver, and Northern Colorado. Over 500 people attended the summits.

CW: You note in the status report that 15,000 manufacturing jobs were left unfilled in Colorado in 2013. Can this be attributed directly to a workforce skills-gap?

Without question. The numbers are from OEDIT (the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade), but we heard about a skills-gap repeatedly and endlessly from employers. This wasn’t about a projected wish list, as in “if we only had 15,000”. This is industry saying we don’t have access to the people with skills that would even qualify them for a first round interview.

CW: What are the most common occupations industry seems to lack?

The most often heard occupations, regardless of region, were machinists, production workers, quality control positions, and CNC operators.

CW: As a practical matter, how long will it be before students begin emerging from the 'talent pipeline' envisioned as a key outcome of the process?

Well, there’s a group cued-up in the Colorado community college system, but we’re talking about volume long-term, and this campaign is geared toward growing a higher volume of potential candidates for the jobs that are not getting filled now. And at a minimum range we’ll begin seeing them in two to three years.

The idea is that with...1165 we can provide support for those that are currently studying or showing interest in this work and that they’re not held off for financial reasons or a lack of advising. If we have a clarified career path, with a host of clear signs, where it’s not so difficult to find your way forward, it may happen sooner.

In an idealized setting, what business was saying to us on the tour is that, ‘if we find a dynamic principal, or president of a college, open to engaging in internships or mentorships to offset the current hesitancy’, that in five years, we’d begin to see who are now 6th-graders beginning to meet high-school counselors or collegiate advisors, and curricula in the community college system, as well as career experiences, that will normalize and accelerate a steady flow (of students).

CW: What role will universities play in the process, or more specifically, will we see universities begin to offer mentorships or internships as part of this process, programs that seem to have so much promise in the manufacturing sector?

Frankly I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know there’s a great deal of support at the legislative and Dean-level (in universities) to turn their attention to offering those. What we’re working on right now is outlining, with other agencies, what the best practices are for internships, for mentorships and job-shadowing. Not that they have to; but we definitely need more resources to retrain, to provide counseling, to re-integrate or to edit the curricula that are offered.

Because I’ve been part of this process I can say that universities are integral to this process, and that there’s a robust conversation going on about the rethinking of college degrees. Three years ago that might not have been the case, where they might have said that, ‘it’s not our (universities) function’. But this year’s been the best year yet in seeing a broad understanding that career-readiness is part of their domain, their livelihood, and that it’s not just a pure academic exercise.

Contact Jo O’Brien at jo.o’brien@cccs.edu

Next: Regional differences in the industry and educational response.