Educating Our Work Force

by Don Rodriguez

Enough already! It seems to be taking forever for Arizona’s unemployment rate to drop to levels seen before the Great Recession. Or is it the new reality that rates never will be near 5 percent again? It’s not for a lack of jobs, as a look at help wanted listings shows. It’s a lack of enough qualified Arizonans to do the jobs that require more than on-the-job training.

Michael Brown, an economist at Wells Fargo Securities who monitors such trends, explains the United States has moved beyond the cyclical unemployment marked by layoffs that occur when demand for products and services drops. The nation now faces a disconnect between skills needed to do today’s jobs and the talents possessed by the available labor force. This is structural unemployment, he says, which is more commonly called the skills gap. “We’re already seeing those effects,” he says.

A prime example in Arizona is companies bringing in people from around the country “and in some cases, the world” to fill open positions, edging out workers here. “It’s due to the skills gap,” Brown says. While on the surface those placements don’t affect the unemployment rate, such measures don’t benefit those people looking for work. “They are not competing across the state or competing across the country,” he says. “They are competing globally.”

For students who think simply getting into colleges and universities is the ticket to a career, they’re already facing disappointment. Recent reports regarding standardized tests considered in college applications showed more than half of the 2012 high school graduates lacked the skills needed to succeed in college. When they come to college unprepared, they spend time in remedial classes, which is very costly, Brown says. They can become frustrated and, within one or two semesters, they drop out. If they do get past remedial, they may major in liberal arts, the “easy majors” without the science, technology and math, he says. “It really sets students up for a tough time in the years ahead.”

In Arizona, there are sectors already tackling the skills gap. Some programs underway offer payoffs in the near term as some workers get a shot at training for jobs that require more skills but also offer pay. Community colleges and partnerships are working to deliver new skills to a cross-section of Arizonans already in the work force or soon to enter it. Some high schools are focusing on the lessons of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that will be required in more competitive work forces. There are even parents raising the bar so their children — and generations to come — can decrease if not close the gap completely.

Companies Encouraged to Act
For training essential to making Arizonans competitive now, the Arizona Commerce Authority has partnered with companies throughout the state through its Arizona Job Training Program, a grant program to support custom training for employers who create new jobs or increase the skills and wages of current workers. One grant recipient cannot afford to take a chance on workers without special training. Scottsdale-based BroadcastAZ, which provides broadcast of live shots from breaking news 24/7 in the state, is the first studio outside the New York City area to use video over Internet protocol (cloud technology) for high-definition video broadcast, says Doug Collins, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

The grant of more than $100,000 to its parent, Broadcast USA LLC, allowed the company to educate new hires in traditional broadcast technology as well as servers, encoders/decoders and other communication technology, Collins says. “The ACA grant became an enabling catalyst for our company to leverage and accelerate our growth into the breaking-news broadcast sector in Arizona,” he says. Broadcast USA provides broadcast services to clients such as NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX News, the Glenn Beck Network and other global networks.

Although there already are skilled broadcast and telecommunication professionals in the Phoenix metro area, Broadcast AZ needed additional expertise from employees. In particular, 10 professionals were trained to operate such equipment as the TriCaster 855 professional video studio switcher system, the industry standard for producing live shows like the Super Bowl or network shows like Anderson Cooper while he was on location in Scottsdale. “The skills that we provide to our staff allow them to compete not only in Arizona but on a global platform as companies will require communication professionals,” he says.

Ultimately, TriCaster’s parent company, NewTek, selected BroadcastAZ as the regional training center for TriCaster students and professionals. Another extra from the training grant is BroadcastAZ’s being able to give back to not only its industry but the community. The company has partnered with the Peoria Unified School District to mentor students in the Liberty High School media program through training in the new technology areas as well as begin internships providing hands-on experience.

Communities Enhance Industry-specific Training
Not all companies can offer new skills training on site. That’s where some organizations have to step up, especially if they want to get their communities ready for new employers. That’s the idea behind the proposed Northern Arizona Workforce Training Center, which would provide industrial and technical workforce training for businesses expanding and relocating to the region. Spearheading the effort is the Sustainable Economic Development Initiative, which assembled funds and in-kind support for a regional workforce demand study. The results revealed the need for industry-specific employee training on a recurring basis. SEDI is joined by Northern Arizona University, Coconino County Career Center, the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, and others.

Arizona Public Service provided most of the funding for architects to design training space matching the regional demands indicated in the survey. SEDI and the others identified the underutilized shop facilities at the former Sinagua High School in Flagstaff that could serve the needs of industrial and high-technology workforce training without significant renovations. Organizers are now developing a business plan to support a request for other funding that would allow the center to begin operating in January.

Arizona community colleges have programs that can prepare today’s work force now even if students have no immediate employer affiliation. At GateWay Community College, some of the students are gaining skills in what on the surface may not seem as high-tech as HDTV, but is very much so and definitely requires the latest skills. They are enrolled in the HVAC/Facilities program. (HVAC stands for heating, ventilation and air conditioning.) Ask anyone who has attempted to repair his or her own air conditioner in the middle of August whether it’s a task for the unskilled.

To provide hands-on experience, the program has formed relationships with companies and associations that, in turn, have provided the program with new equipment, says Program Director Michael A. Corry. Additionally, adjunct instructors — many of whom are currently or recently retired from working in the field — ensure students become familiar with current industry trends. Also, a relationship with Johnson Controls, which maintains a training facility for its employees at GateWay and other locations across the country, provides access to emerging technologies, he says.

Corry notes students aren’t coming to GateWay because the skills gap is foremost on their minds. “They care about learning something that will aid them in improving their current job or get them a well-paying job,” he says. And because GateWay is an open campus for any student wishing to attend, some students need additional help with math and science. Still, Corry says one of his main goals as the new program director is to ensure “students learn how to learn.” Additionally, they will be taught practical applications of electrical and refrigeration properties so they will then be able to troubleshoot systems using those same properties, he says.

As happens with any program or major, the GateWay students in the program sometimes find HVAC/Facilities work is not for them. Corry has worked with students to help them discover other programs that could be more suitable. Also, one of the items on his “to do” list as the new program director is to document not only graduates but non-graduate students who still moved into better jobs because of the training provided.

High Schools Focus on STEM
Understanding that math and science will be at the heart of careers in the future, some Arizona high schools are teaching these skill sets to their students before they head to college. In southern Arizona, BASIS Tucson North has received recognition beyond the state for what it has accomplished. One such accolade is being in the Top 10 of the 2012 Best High Schools rankings by U.S. News and World Report magazine. The school is part of BASIS Schools, Inc., which launched in Tucson in 1998 as an answer to a lack of rigorous, college-prep education for the average child, says Julia Toews, head of the school.

While receiving honors is a plus, the real rewards happen with every graduating class because every student goes on to four-year postsecondary institutions. About 75 percent of the senior class earns some type of merit scholarship, Toews says, and about half the graduates are accepted by select schools. Even the proportion of students majoring in science and engineering is higher than other schools.

There is no magic going on at Toews’ school. “The single most distinctive thing about our students is that they know what it is like to really work hard and see the benefits of hard work,” she says. That work is intellectual in nature, so “they leave not just skilled in reading, writing, math and science, but as critical thinkers who seek out opportunities to contribute to their communities in positive ways,” Toews says.

In Phoenix, Bioscience High School was planned with a core STEM curriculum. Add to that the school is adjacent to the downtown Phoenix biomedical corridor to leverage members of the surrounding community, says Interim Principal Quintin Boyce. “This vision has resulted in our school, which exposes students in the Phoenix metro area to science while building meaningful relationships with important community members and stakeholders,” he says.

Graduates report feeling academically prepared when they continue their education. While the majority of students have gone on to pursue degrees in science fields, there are some who pursue other areas of interest. The outcome is similar to that in BASIS Tucson North. “Our focus remains preparing students by encouraging them to bolster their critical-thinking skills,” Boyce says. “This type of focus has allowed our graduates to navigate their collegiate career by reasoning out information when they are unsure and has proven to be an attribute during their college career.”

In its seventh year, the word is getting out about Bioscience, with school officials fielding inquiries from others interested in potentially creating new schools with a STEM focus while others are more interested in the philosophy of teaching and learning, Boyce says. Toews says there have been inquiries about the teaching philosophy at Tucson Basis North, but not from other schools in Tucson, where some even falsely accuse the school of raiding enrollments.

Toews and Boyce see long-term benefits for the state that go beyond building skill sets. “These motivated students have the potential to encourage the growth of educated, skilled employees that influence the success of our state, and this translates to better-prepared employees, critical problem solvers and compassionate citizens, which in turn means a better Arizona,” Boyce says. Noting a continuing benefit, Toews says, “I also think that investing in education in Arizona is part of what will keep our graduates here to raise families.”

Parents Promote Education
Families, particularly parents, are at the heart of Expect More Arizona, a group working to create a culture that values education as the state’s top priority. Contrary to sentiment often repeated in mainstream media, most parents don’t think it’s just up to teachers to prepare students for the future. In a voter poll conducted in 2010, 90 percent of parents indicated they believe they need to take on greater responsibility in improving Arizona education, says Pearl Chang Esau, the group’s president and CEO. “We are on our way to raising expectations for all students through some of the most recent reforms in education in our state,” Esau says.

For example, the adoption of Arizona’s Common Core Standards coupled with top teachers and educators will boost academic rigor to prepare all students for jobs that don’t even exist today, she says. With 85 percent of high-growth/high-wage jobs in Arizona expected to require postsecondary education, Esau says, even rural communities where high school graduation and postsecondary educational attainment rates are lower need to act. “The key message for students is that high school is no longer the finish line,” she says. Esau joins others in saying postsecondary education includes advanced career training, licenses and certificates, and associate degrees.

Once inside the work force, lifelong learning is a critical component to success in a global economy, Esau says, noting many workplaces offer ongoing education opportunities to their employees. “We encourage them to do so through programs where you can work while you learn,” which also includes online programs, she says.

Expect More Arizona’s message is catching on, with its movement expanding to the point that Flagstaff and Tucson each has a full-time representative from the group. Esau says signs of growth include nearly 13,000 who are registered as supporters, more than 7,400 who stay engaged through Facebook and the 2,500 who follow on Twitter. The goal is to have 1 million people join Expect More Arizona movement by 2020. “We know that this work takes time and long-term commitment,” she says. “Everything we do is focused on long-term impact.”

With commitments like these among groups, schools and other supporters, the skills gap could become part of Arizona history.

See related article, STEM: More than the Sum of Its Parts

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