Snap-on, a publicly traded designer and manufacturer of tools, equipment and systems solutions, was founded in 1920. Since then, the Kenosha, Wisc., company has survived the Great Depression, the Great Recession and an ongoing labor gap in the mechanical trades that has hounded other firms. So how has the S&P 500 company - with an estimated worth of more than $2.5 billion - managed when others are struggling to fill key technical positions?
"This is not a new thing," says Frederick Brookhouse, Snap-on's business and education partnership manager. "I've been in these conversations for 30 years. It's really been driven by a very rapid growth of technology, which is not slowing down. If anything, it's increasing." Technical education, he says, is not keeping pace.
"I don't blame education, I blame the politicians," he says.
Brookhouse says the problems relating to insufficient numbers of skilled laborers are systemic, ongoing and societal, and they go all the way back to at least the middle-school age. Mechanical education has lost its curb appeal. Too many parents, he says, are of the mindset that "I'm not going to fund technical education because I want my child to be a doctor. Well, they can't all be doctors. And frankly, they don't [all] want to be doctors."
Young learners need to be taught that "technical, skilled people are valuable and they have good jobs." That's a message that has been lost recently, and without that drive, education institutions won't have the students to turn into tomorrow's machinists, designers and skilled laborers. Community colleges and technical schools, Brookhouse says, have to create an attractive, up-to-the-minute modern environment, and for that, they need help.
"We actually have, as a corporation, taken this on as a part of our responsibility to ... assist in the process of training," Brookhouse says.
Each company, each industry, is largely responsible for its own workforce, Brookhouse says, and "[employers] need to engage and take some responsibility and not just turn their backs on this."
Partnering with educators
Brookhouse and Snap-on, at least, have one advantage in their Wisconsin location. The state's 16 technical colleges see 88% of graduates employed within six months of getting their degree. Seventy-one percent of technical college graduates from the Badger State take six months or less to find employment in the same field for which they got their degree. Perhaps most worth noting: 86% of employed graduates found their job in Wisconsin.
Bryan Albrecht, president of the state's Gateway Technical College, would say those numbers benefit Wisconsin employers because Wisconsin employers helped make them happen. Speaking at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., recently, Albrecht said "building that conversation around what expectations are" for an area's population to turn into a viable workforce "is critical." In short: Reach out to local community colleges and secondary education centers and tell them how to turn their students into your hires.
"Oftentimes, we don't have the right information about what skills are required for [what jobs are actually available,]" Albrecht said. "So that conversation has to happen between our employers and our schools."
Sixty percent of the available jobs, he said, require some kind of post-high-school education and "the identification of what those credentials are and how they align with the expectations of the industry is what community colleges are designed and working toward." Albrecht called the skill gap a local problem and encouraged local solutions between industry and educational institutions.
Conor Smyth, director of strategic partnerships and external relations for the Wisconsin Technical College System, says that "for taxpayers" the 86% of alums who stay in-state is hugely important: "In these austere times, people are very concerned about that return on investment." Smyth says "employers who have direct input on the program" can all but tailor their required education niches. "The colleges have the ability to create local certificates, and those don't require any approval process at the state level," Smyth says. "So if any employer comes to them and says, 'You've got this class over here and that one over there, and what I need you to do is pull those into a package,' the college can do that and award a certificate for it, so they can respond real-time to employer demands."
And healthy business-education partnerships aren't just for entry-level positions, he says. Skills require upgrading, and local community colleges are a solid venue for it - sometimes all you have to do is ask.
"Because when you talk about a skills mismatch or a skills shortage, part of the solution to that is taking the workers who are doing a great job and succession planning with them, finding a way to move them up within the organization," says Smyth.
Schools want employed graduates; employers want educated job applicants. There's no shortage of ways for employers to get involved with the process, from as touch-and-go as school visits to as involved as providing the equipment and training for a college's classroom and even helping design the curriculum. Albrecht sees the effort as one that well-serves local populations, but Brookhouse, after "engaging with education for Snap-on for more than 20 years," wants employers to start thinking bigger.
"Don't go out individually to each institution, but collaborate with institutions like the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of Career and Technical Education, or the one we helped start, the NC3, or the National Coalition of Certification Centers, where it's school leaders and their staff working collaboratively so there's a standard," says Brookhouse. "What should happen here is a dozen or 20 companies should come together and join Snap-on, at the highest level, so the CEOs can be champions and speak the same language and collectively change the perception of technical education in the United States, and its value."
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