Mike Cartney: Being Your Community’s First Responder for the Workforce Skills Gap

The technological evolution of the workplace requires even entry-level employees to possess more education and training than ever before, opening a “chasm sized” skills gap in the US workforce. Yet our approach and focus on post-secondary education does not align with our workforce needs. By 2025, about 64% of career entry requirements will require less than a baccalaureate, yet we continue to push our students toward four-year degrees, resulting in a mismatch between the education people are receiving and workforce entry needs.

Simultaneously, there are great jobs available for those with the right skills. Yet Trail King Industries, a manufacturer in South Dakota, had to turn down $20M in contracts because they could not find welders. Multiple South Dakota businesses are turning away contracts, delaying or foregoing expansion, and leaving positions unfilled simply because there are not properly skilled workers available in the state.

Today, South Dakota could quadruple its welding, electrician and licensed practical nursing program capacities and still not fill all the openings just in our state.   These scenarios are repeated across the US, predominately in the manufacturing, energy, healthcare, aerospace, and transportation industries.

Lake Area Technical Institute is working to fill this gap. It is a public two-year technical college in South Dakota with about 2500 students. Our mission is “Changing Lives and Launching Careers.” Our graduation and retention rates are among the highest in the nation (graduation running 70-80%), and we place over 99% of our students into jobs upon graduation. Our graduates earn about 27% more than other new starts in the region, and their average income will eclipse the South Dakota medium income just five years after graduation. Our student loan default rate is about half the national average. We’ve enjoyed fourteen consecutive years of growth.

So what do we do differently?

Tightly knit student cohorts in clearly defined graduations paths with close connections to their industry-trained instructors has been a formula for success in community colleges and technical institutes for over 50 years in South Dakota and beyond. Our students’ education also includes the soft skills needed to succeed in today’s modern workforce.

We view college as a pathway rather than a destination, which led us to redefine success as job placement, not graduation. And we know that for more than 40% of our students, college is the road out of poverty – hence the focus on keeping college relevant and affordable. A road once less travelled now seems achievable and one worth taking.  We view their time with us as the beginning, not the completion of, their educational and occupational careers.

Although we are student-focused, we are a Community/Industry facing organization, meaning we take cues, set goals, and establish performance measures based upon our surrounding community’s needs. Over 300 businesses work with our program staff and students to provide a relevant educational experience that supports our state’s workforce demands. These businesses consult on and oversee curriculum; provide internships, training aides and equipment; and, most importantly, mentor and hire our students. Put simply, they are heavily invested in and involved with this pipeline.

One key aspect overlooked by many institutions is the changing demographics of potential students. There is a certain percent of the population for whom college is a given, and another percentage for whom college is a goal. But when the nation looks at having 60% or higher of the population with post-secondary credentials, you have reached passed those two populations into a different demographic: students who do not assume inherent value in a college degree and look critically at the return of investment (both time and money) of college.

Thanks to political and philanthropic support, many students receive full-ride scholarships to South Dakota’s technical institutes in return for working in South Dakota. Lake Area Tech’s “Stretch the Million” program leverages these funds with industry providing 33% more scholarships to students willing to work for a specific employer at graduation.

The Technical Skills Gap is not solely an industry problem. It is not solely a government problem. And, it is not solely an education problem. It is a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted response. A number of steps are needed to close the skills gap in South Dakota and other states.

Tighten the bonds between education and industry. We must re-image high demand occupations so they are highly valued by society. These are great jobs with good pay, great work environments with great people, and we need them!   Early engagement with our middle schools and high schools must inform students and their parents about the great vocational opportunities available. Additionally, technical education is expensive, so we must find ways to share resources and control costs while keeping updated and aligned with industry standards.

Align post-secondary education with our emerging workforce demands, and provide the infrastructure and tools needed. We have to ensure our educational system is responsive to industry as well as individual needs. We need to align and merge our educational careers with our occupational careers by providing ‘just in time education’ and education must better value work experience.

Look for innovative ways to be the catalyst for workforce development. Possible solutions include workforce development grants for critical needs; establishing programs like South Dakota’s Build Dakota scholarships to make college achievable in exchange for work commitments; support for low-income; and assistance in building infrastructure and expanding workforce targeted educational opportunities.  Finally, it is important to establish Centers of Excellence for Career and Technical Education focused on generating and sustaining the technical skilled workforce in a scalable, proven, and cost-effective manner.

Taking these steps will ensure our nation remains the greatest place in the world to live, work, and learn.

Mike Cartney, a retired Air Force Colonel, is President of Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown SD, this year’s recipient of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Located in Watertown, SD, Lake Area Technical Institute is a public, two-year technical college with a student population nearly 2,500 and offering 29 career focused programs. Lake Area Tech’s work in student success and advocating the value of community colleges has been acknowledged on International Public Radio’s Take Away series, Kentucky Public TV’s Dropping Back In Series, The White House’s Champions of Change summits, Forbes, New York Times and TIME Magazine. The college was one of four colleges featured in the Aspen Institute’s publication “Structural Equity: Big-Picture Thinking & Partnerships That Improve Community College Student Outcomes.”

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