The Role of Technical and Vocational Schools in Easing Job Skills Mismatch

November 17, 2010

Moderator: Welcome to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Economic Development podcast series. I'm Todd Greene with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Today, we're talking with Mr. James King, vice chancellor at the Tennessee Technology Centers.

High unemployment rates continue to challenge our nation. Despite this, technological advancements and economic shifts have actually created new jobs within regions and localities. Business retention and recruitment have become even more highly dependent on local technical and vocational colleges to efficiently provide a steady stream of trained workers to these open jobs. In a previous podcast with Dr. Rolando Montoya of Miami Dade College, we discussed how community colleges have adapted their educational models to meet workforce needs.

Technical and vocational colleges must also be highly aligned with local employer needs and economic development goals. Through 27 locations throughout the state, the Tennessee Technology Centers network provides technical skills and professional training designed to meet the immediate employment needs of new and existing businesses. Mr. King began his career as a vocational agriculture teacher in 1978 and became vice chancellor in 1999.

Mr. King, thank you for joining me today.

James King: It's my pleasure, Todd.

Moderator: Like most states, Tennessee is dealing with a challenging employment environment, but there are several bright spots, including the opening of a large automotive plant in the Chattanooga area. That company expressed a need for a workforce specifically trained in their modern operations. How did you work with the company, and what skill sets requested by the company were not already present in the pool of potential employees?

King: To begin with, we helped screen all the potential candidates for the industrial maintenance technician and the production worker [positions]. We used an 8-hour intensive mechanical aptitude test, and, after testing, we supplied an 18-week training program for the industrial maintenance technician [job], and a 12-week training program for the production worker [job].

The most exciting aspect of the Volkswagen project was the development of a mechatronics program. This was designed in order to ensure workers for the future for Volkswagen. This is a 4,000-clock-hour program, with 50 percent of the training in the classroom and lab on our campus, and the remaining portion was a paid, on-the-job training in the manufacturing plant at the end of each term. So, if the student studied electronics this term, he spent a term in the plant the next term getting paid for that—so, applying what he learned in the classroom and the lab.

Moderator: The workforce training needs of existing industry have also changed with changing economic conditions and advances in technology. How do you ensure that your curriculum addresses the more specialized needs of local employers?

King: We rely on industry partners through advisory committees. Each program will have an advisory committee made up of industry representatives in their particular field, and the school has an advisory committee that's made up of local community leaders. And they're constantly tying these advisory committees to industry needs and certifications and standards.

We also survey our industries to be sure our graduates have the skills that they need to be successful. And we also set up a co-op program for students in industries, and get feedback from both industries and students involved in these co-ops to ensure that we are maintaining industry-relevant training.

Moderator: Now, more than ever, we think of many manufacturing jobs as knowledge jobs. The economy has become more dominated by knowledge workers, and modern manufacturing and industry have become highly technical in nature. What does this evolution mean for the role of technical colleges and what prerequisites or remedial training are becoming more relevant?

King: In today's environment, some of the best and brightest students coming out of high school need to be in career and technical education. In many cases, our students require the same problem-solving, reading, and math skills as college students do. To assist with this, our students take what we call a "tech foundations program," which is an integrated reading, math, and problem-solving program that's integrated into their day-to-day curriculum. Now, of course, to prove to the students, "Hey, you need this math, and you need this reading in order to survive," we also align our programs with the ACT [American College Testing program] WorkKeys program using a specialized training program called KeyTrain, and this is in order to increase their basic skills in reading, math, and problem solving. [Note: The ACT WorkKeys program assesses a variety of skills, including math and reading as well as technical skills. KeyTrain is a training program developed to teach the skills that the WorkKeys program assesses.]

Now, the other thing that we are doing in Tennessee is that we are also requiring all of our students to take the WorkKeys Career Readiness exam prior to graduation. This is an exam that has a gold, silver, and bronze level...if a student passes the scores for a gold level, he can meet the math and reading skills for 95 percent of the jobs out there. A silver certificate is for 65 percent of the jobs profiled, and a bronze is 35 percent. So, we require all of our students to take this. This sort of validates to business and industries that our students have the reading, math, and problem-solving skills to succeed in the workplace.

Moderator: The "green economy" is emerging as a source of new jobs. How have the Tennessee Technology Centers adapted to develop workforce training for green jobs?

King: In addressing both the economic and environmental impacts of fuel-source needs, the Technology Center system is offering a focused-program approach, an integrated approach, and what I call a "big picture" approach.

On the focused approach, this primarily involves photovoltaic solar panel training, which is designed to provide energy training to meet the needs of the regular panel installation for business and homes so that our students can install these types of solar panels and understand the technology behind this type of business and industry.

In addition, we are working at ways to integrate green technology into practically every program we offer. We feel this is important because eventually all aspects of the business and industry, and the home, and society as a whole [are] moving towards a more efficient and sustainable energy source.

The "on-the-horizon"—what I call the "big picture" aspect of it—is we are now getting in Tennessee that Nissan is developing the electric cars, which opens up a whole new opportunity for technology students. Recently, photovoltaic students at one of the Technology Centers assisted in building the Southeast's first solar-car-charging station in Pulaski, Tennessee. In addition, bio-fuels and other emerging technologies offer opportunities and challenges as the centers work to remain on the cutting edge of workforce development.

Moderator: While the Tennessee Technology Centers have close relationships to high schools, individuals who have been out of school and employed for many years are now seeking new employment. These workers are discovering that their skill sets don't always match the current needs of employers who are hiring. Have you witnessed a change in the demographic of your student population and how do you support students who haven't been in a formal classroom setting for some time?

King: Yes, we've seen quite a change, Todd. What we are looking at is about a third of our students are what I call traditional students looking for their first career. But the biggest difference is a third of our students now are retraining because the jobs that they have had for several years basically no longer exist. And then another third of our training is tied directly to industrial training in order for employees to remain current since technology is changing regularly.

But the most interesting trend we've seen, Todd, in the last couple of years, is the number of college graduates that are coming to the Technology Centers to acquire marketable skills—and I think "skill" is the key word. In addition to teaching marketable skills, we have to integrate the Technology Foundations Program, which is our remedial development; we have to do specialized tutoring for individuals, and we also do really individualized instruction to provide support for those students who haven't been in a formal classroom for some time.

Moderator: Many of your campus locations are in rural areas of Tennessee. What are the workforce training needs unique to rural communities and how do you effectively and efficiently deploy resources to serve less densely populated regions of the state?

King: You know, as I look in Tennessee, rural communities probably have been impacted more than any other areas by the economy, because many of the manufacturing jobs have left many of these rural areas. So these students need assistance in learning about new careers and also becoming confident that they can seek jobs outside of their particular community.

In Tennessee, we've been fortunate that there has been a partnership with our department of labor, our higher-education institutions, the state's economic and community development leaders in providing, basically, cost-free assistance or retraining for those individuals, and have set up funds for travel expenses to train for emerging occupations. So what we have managed to do is we have actually poured more money into some of the rural areas because the needs were higher there. We have also had to work with these students...[helping] many of these realize that now they may have to either relocate from their areas or drive a little further than what they normally do. We had one county that was the second-highest percentage unemployment in the nation, and it became a whole comprehensive effort from the higher education, department of labor, and the governor's office to go in there because you had nearly a 30 percent unemployment rate in that county. But I think we've made significant strides—we have cut that down to about 10 percent as a result of pouring a lot of state resources into that area.

Moderator: The field of workforce development has evolved to include close relationships with businesses and high schools, as we have talked about. The more effective programs also include robust relationships with economic developers, local elected officials, and other policymakers. How might economic developers and other stakeholders enhance their roles in the workforce development process to support job growth and improve employment statistics?

King: Individuals need to be aware of the fact that postsecondary career and technical education is actually higher education. Many communities and...cultures...sometimes view that if you don't have a college degree or a baccalaureate degree, you cannot be a success. And, I think, in this recent downturn in the economy, we have proven that it's not the degree that actually means anything, it's the skill set.

Many of the emerging careers that are in high demand do not require what we sometimes view as the traditional academic degree. I think it's the value of the training and industry certifications that may be more important in the workplace than the degree, so to speak. So economic developers and policymakers need to value these institutions like [the] Technology Centers and other types of institutions across this nation, support them financially, and get them the credit for what they do in addressing the economic downturn in the last few years.

What we've witnessed in Tennessee is that the placement rates at the Technology Centers have been quite high, even during this economic downturn. And the bottom line is that we were putting people to work. So policy leaders, economic developers, and local elected officials need to recognize this, and help support these institutions.

Moderator: Mr. King, thank you for joining us today.

King: You're welcome.

Moderator: This concludes our podcast. We've been speaking with Mr. James King, vice chancellor at the Tennessee Technology Centers.

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