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By Stan Shoun, President of Ranken Technical College

One of the most critical issues for this state (and nation) in the last 50 years is “economic and workforce development”. You cannot logically speak about one, without the other. The fact is that many of the challenges that face each of us daily: crime, poverty, income disparity, crumbling infrastructure, and even healthcare could be mitigated by simply PUTTING PEOPLE TO WORK! The #1 impediment to state growth is our inability to provide a skilled labor force. 

Now government will tell us for that to happen “we need to create more jobs” (sound familiar?). The reality is that over 6 million jobs in the United States are going unfilled, predominately in the middle skills areas; and the unemployment rate is at an all-time low. Almost universally, businesses and industries would and could bring on more “work”, but they simply can’t find the workforce to make that happen. So, what is the disconnect? It is not a “jobs” problem…it is a “skills problem” (the notorious “skills gap”)! Those people that aren’t working, and even those “coming out of school” simply do not have the skills/education/work ethic to fill the in-demand jobs. So, doesn’t it seem logical that a great “economic plan” would be to use our resources to train/educate that potential workforce to fill the in-demand jobs that actually exist?!

On the other hand, educators will tell you in order to achieve that goal, everyone needs to go to college and get a bachelor’s degree (or even a masters or Ph.D) and this has become the societal expectation for “success”. One recent survey showed that 93% of college’s Chief Academic Officers indicated they were teaching the right skills and knowledge for student’s careers; yet only 11% of business and industry agreed with them! The reality is that 70% of the students coming out of high school will not achieve a 4-year degree…nor do they need to. Workforce structures in almost every field require about 7 “technicians” for every 1 “professional” with a degree. So if everyone has a “degree” and is a member of “management”….who is supposed to be doing the actual work? This is a simple fact we have ignored for the past 40 years, continuously exasperating the “skills gap” for in-demand jobs. Approximately 1.4 million students will start traditional college this fall. About 50% will drop out the first year; 25% will dropout over the next four years; and 1/3 of those who do graduate, will work in jobs not requiring a degree. Couple this with a staggering debt load of student loans, and WE have done a tremendous disservice to the 21st century workforce.

So, what are the answers?
First, a realization that government and traditional education aren’t the answer and that there is no “silver bullet” for the “quick fix”. (It took us 40-50 years to dig the hole we are in and it will take a strategic effort to get us out). All stakeholders have to be open and committed to a strategic paradigm shift both in industry and education.

In education we must provide technical education in secondary schools again, and encourage, empower and value student participation. (Again, 70% of these students will not achieve a 4-year degree!). We must develop an understanding that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is much, much broader than just “engineering”. We must provide all students (and faculty/staff) with career exploration options so they understand all career pathways available to them. Higher education must understand that “lifelong learning” is more than just their classrooms, and expand their curriculums to embrace industry certifications, apprenticeship and even experiential learning (OJT).

Business and Industry must realize that the “good old days are gone” and if things don’t change now, it is only going to get worse. Baby boomers are retiring (40% of the workforce) and emerging technologies are infiltrating every aspect of industry and obsoleting themselves every two years (requiring constant re-training). Business and industry will no longer have the luxury to attend job fairs and graduations, solicit numerous applications, select the 1 or 2 best and employ them for 20-30 years. INDUSTRY MUST BE AN ACTIVE PARTICIPANT IN THE RECRUITMENT AND TRAINING OF THE NEXT GENERATION OF WORKFORCE! We must develop and deploy strategies to educate/market to both the emerging students and their parents the skills, technologies, and careers available for the 21st century workforce. Active participation in integrated work-based learning programs such as apprenticeships, internships and co-ops are imperative. Students gain real work experience and financial support, and industry gets the workforce assistance they need to produce their products /services, while at the same time developing the next generation of workers. Truly a Win-Win. Additionally, it is essential to re-image “blue collar technical careers” in the United States. Technology in almost every field has obsoleted the “dark dirty workshops” of the 60’s and has created a “grey collar worker” in the 21st century. It is up to us to get the word out!

Federal and state government agencies can assist by supporting regional and private efforts, with the understanding that “one size does not fit all”. Reducing bureaucracy in the establishment of work-based learning partnerships would accelerate the development of a trained workforce. Reprograming of “federal and state financial aid” to include industry certification tracks would create tremendous opportunities for the disadvantaged, disenfranchised, unemployed and underemployed demographics in our state. In a state in which “tax breaks” abound…how about state incentives for companies to “inshore” oversea work as educational training programs for the next generation of skilled workers? Again, it’s a win-win for students, companies, and the economy! Lastly, economic development organizations must refocus resources on developing existing industries as opposed to chasing “unicorns” and opportunities that “might be”.

This state and this nation were made great by the economic backbone of a “blue collar technical workforce”! Until we re-embrace that identity, the economy will not grow! The driving force behind will not be government, nor even traditional education; it will be business & industry. They have the will, experience, resources and motivation to make Missouri an economic powerhouse again! 

(Caption: Stan Shoun, seated second to last, at the NAM State of Manufacturing Tour in Feb. 2018 )

Learn more about Ranken Technical College at https://ranken.edu/.