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Low-Skill Workforce Can Support Growing Industry Clusters, According to Report

July 31, 2013

As the U.S. manufacturing sector continues to grow, so does the challenge for regions to find “middle-skill” workers who can fill job vacancies in advanced manufacturing. The Council on Foreign Relations has released a new report, Building the American Workforce, that suggests policymakers can fill this need by narrowing the skills gap for underserved, low-skilled workers. To meet this need, the report's recommendations include overhauling the national workforce development system and establishing a broad vision for workforce training that focuses on low-skilled, underserved workers. Examples include advanced manufacturing training programs in New Hampshire and Washington to demonstrate how the vision can be operationalized at the regional level.

The report notes that even before the Great Recession, an “alarming number of Americans lacked the skills and education credentials needed to compete for decent-paying jobs in an economy transformed by globalization and accelerating technological change.” Beyond addressing growing national income disparities and reclaiming losses in middle-income jobs, addressing the skills gap by improving workforce training programs also supports American competitiveness. Access to a well-trained workforce is one of the defining factors for companies seeking to relocate. The CFR report suggests that nationally-supported, regional programs that combine postsecondary opportunities, adult education, and social services can provide low-skill, low-income workers with ladders of opportunity into the middle-skill, middle-wage jobs that currently cannot be filled by an undertrained American workforce. Examples can be drawn from advanced manufacturing training programs in New Hampshire and Washington.

According to figures from the Boston Consulting Group, in 2012 there were 300,000 vacant manufacturing jobs in the U.S., with the expectation that another 750,00 sector jobs will be created in the next 10 years. Examples of training programs that retrain low-skill workers for advanced manufacturing are emerging across the country, often involving partnerships between corporate, public, and academic institutions.

In New Hampshire, the Middle Skills Manufacturing Initiative is a 220-hour advanced manufacturing training program hosted by the Franklin County Technical School. The program has received multiple rounds of funding from the state legislature, 14 area manufacturers, the Franklin-Hampton Career Center, and the Greenfield Community College. The initiative is housed within the new Franklin-Hampshire Middle Skills Center. Greenfield Community College, working with participating employers, is developing the training program, hiring instructors, and managing the testing and certification of participants. The Career Center, which is providing $22,000 in program funding for the initiative, is handling recruiting, enrollment, counseling, and offers work readiness, job search and placement services, and provides on-the-job training services. A Commonwealth Corp. study estimates that New Hampshire will have to fill 100,000 advanced manufacturing jobs within the next decade.

Another example can be pulled from the U.S. aerospace and aviation industries, where companies are facing an aging workforce and potentially large shortages of skilled workers necessary to replace industry losses. Washington has one of the country’s largest industry clusters and is investing in workforce training at Everett Community College, where a new 37,000-square-foot Advanced Manufacturing Training and Education Center is being built with funding from a three-year, $890,000 NSF grant. The center will be directed by the Everett Community College’s office of Corporate and Continuing Education and partner with local K-12 schools to build a workforce pipeline for the regional aerospace and aviation industries.

According to the report, most workforce training programs currently are housed within two-year technical and community colleges. Few programs are coordinated nationally or regionally. Some programs are linked to particular industries or companies in their region. But regions without dominant manufacturing clusters are not likely to have technical or community college programs for manufacturing workforce training. In an attempt to fill this gap, companies have been partnering with vocational schools and community colleges to establish their own skills development programs. The Council on Foreign Relations report argues that strong national leadership on middle-skill workforce training must be strengthened and paired with integrated regional efforts that pair training programs with social services and connect low-skill workers to middle-skill job opportunities.

New Hampshireworkforce, clusters, manufacturing, aerospace