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Businesses & Schools Partner for Vocational Training

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As the U.S. continues on the path to economic recovery, a number of public and private organizations are partnering in new initiatives to help align workplace needs and educational training.

In a recent speech at Northern Virginia Community College, President Barack Obama highlighted the issue, suggesting that increasing vocational training efforts could help boost the American economy.

"If we could match up schools and businesses, we could create pipelines right from the classroom to the office or the factory floor," Obama said. "This would help workers find better jobs, and it would help companies find the highly educated and highly trained people that they need in order to prosper and to remain competitive."

In his speech, Obama announced an effort by private businesses, colleges and the National Association of Manufacturers to help 50,000 community college students get the necessary credentials for jobs that employers are looking to fill.

Employers cite trouble finding employees for skilled positions

The Manufacturing Institute, a research organization affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturers, reports, "According to U.S. manufacturing executives, a skilled, educated workforce is the single most critical element of innovation success--and the hardest to acquire."

Employers cite difficulty in filling both basic-skills positions and advanced engineering roles, The Manufacturing Institute reports, and the aging of the American workforce is expected to exacerbate the problem. According to a 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal, almost 25 percent of manufacturing employees, or about 2.7 million people, is nearing retirement.

Studies show that the younger generation isn't going on to higher education in sufficient numbers to replace those workers, much less fill new positions. According to The Manufacturing Institute, "Jobs in advanced manufacturing increasingly require some form of postsecondary education, but only 18 percent of ninth graders go on to graduate from high school and receive an associate degree in 3 years or a bachelor's degree in 6 years."

Public-private partnerships help align skills training and labor needs

A June article in The Wall Street Journal reports that employers are increasingly turning to local community colleges and vocational schools to create tailored educational programs to help fill their job openings. While these schools can help students get quick and affordable training, the partnerships can also help boost a state's economy.

According to the article, "Since the 1960s, South Carolina has offered customized training at its technical colleges for companies making large investments and creating jobs. That program figured in the decision by BMW AG to begin making cars in South Carolina in the 1990s and to expand production there in recent years."

Nationwide, a number of businesses are launching similar initiatives. For example, in June, The Seattle Times announced the creation of a new scholarship program that combines state funds with $50 million pledged by Microsoft and Boeing to help Washington undergraduates majoring in "high-demand fields."

Online vocational training could be the key

Online vocational training may be one way to help more students get the targeted skills needed by manufacturing and engineering employers. Online education is growing far more rapidly than classroom-based education, studies from organizations such as the Sloan Consortium show, and the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks reports that advances in virtual labs are allowing online programs to expand into previously off-limits programs such as science and engineering.

While vocational training may still require some hands-on work at a local campus, online schools offer training in necessary science and mathematical skills and can also help arrange for apprenticeships or internships at local businesses. These opportunities not only help students develop on-the-job skills but also allow them to make valuable connections with area employers.

Obama underscored the urgency of such initiatives: "There's no time to lose when we've got folks looking for work, when we've got companies that need to stay competitive in this 21st-century economy, and when we know that we've got to rebuild a middle class, and a lot of that is going to have to do with how well we do in manufacturing and how well we do in those jobs that are related to making products here in the United States of America."