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Human Resources
Skills gap in workforce ‘a critical long-term issue’

During the past year’s seemingly endless political campaigning, candidates at all levels talked nonstop and with great urgency about creating jobs. But a related issue that got far less attention is the skills gap — a shortage of skilled workers and professionals needed to fill jobs in growth industries and to replace all those Baby Boomers heading into retirement.

It’s of particular concern on the Kitsap Peninsula and across the broader region, from Boeing to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard to small companies poised for expansion in areas such as composites manufacturing.

“Washington state is one of the more technically advanced states in the country in terms of industry,” notes Jeff Brown, an engineering professor at Olympic College. “But we rank in the 40s in terms of turning out engineering graduates.”

Reducing that disparity is essential, he says, because the country will need an estimated 100,000 new engineers in the next five to 10 years.

“This country has a vital long-term need for engineers. The Boomers are retiring, and U.S. schools are just not turning out the engineers required to replace them,” Brown says, adding that it’s “a critical long-term issue the country has to come to grips with in order to remain competitive in the world.”

Everyone with a stake in addressing the skills gap stresses the need for a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum in high schools, junior highs and even elementary schools. Students need to take a progression of STEM courses if they want to be prepared to go into a college engineering program.

“STEM is an area of investment and concern now, and hopefully that will help turn the tide on a national basis,” says Mike Fancher, an aerospace engineer who is with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences Bremerton office. “In the meantime, engineering schools have been suffering in terms of the number of applications.”

Fancher sees the skills gap as a two-track problem, with different strategies required.

He draws a distinction between the need for more college graduates who have a four-year degree or higher in various engineering fields, and manufacturing assembly jobs that require specialized training that can be completed in less time.

“Correction of that is probably easier,” he says of workforce needs in manufacturing. “Once people are enrolled or recruited, that gap can be filled with shorter-term (training) courses.”

“Of particular concern is engineering, those are harder to fill,” Fancher says. “A one — or two-year training program or apprentice program is not going to fill those gaps.”

Olympic College in Bremerton is involved in efforts to address both aspects of the skills gap.

The college is in the third year of a partnership with Washington State University to offer a four-year degree in mechanical engineering at OC. Students can take their first two years of classes through Olympic College, then stay in Bremerton to continue their coursework in the WSU program instead of having to go outside Kitsap to attend a four-year school. That’s important for placebound students who have family and other obligations that prevent them from going away to college.

Brown says the joint program with WSU will help fill the skills gap in engineering. The first 14 students to earn the mechanical engineering degree graduated last spring, with 18 more on track to graduate in spring 2013, and 22 students who enrolled as juniors last fall.

During the first two years of the program, students had to go to WSU in Pullman for lab courses in the summer, but this year students will be able to take those courses in an old automotive building being renovated on the OC campus.

“The class cap is 30 students a year, and I think we’ll probably get to that this coming fall,” says Brown, an aerospace/mechanical engineer who earned a Ph D from Purdue University and has taught at OC for 16 years.

He said all the graduates in the first OC/WSU class have jobs — nationally, the starting salary for a mechanical engineer is about $60,000 to $65,000 — and that many of them stayed in Bremerton to work at the shipyard.

“The shipyard is a huge supporter of this program because they need hundreds of engineers every year themselves,” Brown says.

OC also is part of a statewide consortium of 11 community and technical colleges sharing in the Air Washington grant, $20 million in federal funding to provide training in aerospace industry sectors.

OC’s share is $2.2 million, which is being used to expand training programs in composites manufacturing technology, electronics, and manufacturing technology/precision machining.

“Since we started the grant funding, we’ve had 173 participants in the three programs,” says Stephanie Thompson, Air Washington grant manager at OC. She adds that the latter two programs had faced the possibility of being eliminated in budget cuts before the Air Washington grant, which will provide funding through September 2014.

She says participating students include veterans who have recently completed military service, dislocated workers who have been on unemployment, workers who have manufacturing jobs and want to add to their skills, and recent high school graduates. They can complete various levels of certification in the program areas that range from 12 credit hours to a two-year Associate of Technical Arts degree.

The Air Washington program also includes “navigators” from regional Workforce Development Councils who work to connect students with job opportunities that match the skills training they receive.

Jim McKenna of Olympic Workforce Development Council says the grant to OC will put about 450 students in the training programs over the next two years, and many of those will be veterans from the area’s naval bases who are making the transition out of the military and want to live and work in the Kitsap/Puget Sound region.

“They’ve got technical skills coming out,” McKenna says. “They may need an eight-week composites class that gets them ready for a job in the composites industry.”

Fancher points out a perception problem that’s another factor contributing to the skills gap, particularly with regard to manufacturing jobs.

“Young people don’t tend to think of advanced manufacturing as a permanent career choice, even though it can pay well and be in a clean (workplace),” he says. “These aren’t all foundries or boring assembly line jobs.”

In the Air Washington programs, “the focus is on aerospace, but they’re talking about basically advanced manufacturing jobs … clean manufacturing jobs. We’re not talking about the stereotype of repetitive, assembly line work you see going on in Asia putting iPhones together.”

INFORMATION SESSIONS: Olympic College will hold information sessions about the Air Washington programs on Jan. 30, Feb. 13 and Feb. 27 from 5-6 p.m. at the Bremerton campus. For more information or to register for a session, Contact Sarah Miksa at smiksa [at] olympic [dot] edu or 360-473-2826.

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