Bridging the Skills Gap (Margaret A. Ellibee Commentary)

by Margaret A. Ellibee  on Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2018 9:20 am   4 min read

Employers are increasingly seeking workers with degrees and certificates in welding; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; and other skills. (Shutterstock)

Skills gap.

These words loom large in the minds of our local business and industry leaders, as well as educators. In a time of almost full employment, the skills gap is the measure of where we are as a community in terms of our education and training, and where we need to be for strong employment, and a strong economy. 

Throughout the U.S., and right here at home in Arkansas, it is the "middle skills" that are in demand. And it is those same middle skills that also constitute the dreaded skills gap.

"Middle skills" are those that are often technical in nature and include a variety of soft skills like professionalism and showing up to work on time, and incorporate academic skills of reading, communication and math. In Arkansas, we are fortunate that the educational/training programs that emphasize "middle skills" and their aligned career pathways are found at 22 technical/community colleges that offer certificates and two-year associate degrees. In the greater Little Rock/North Little Rock metro area, it is UA-Pulaski Technical College (UA-PTC).

Right now, there are local businesses literally begging for "middle skilled" workers who have associate degrees and/or technical certification. Yet, despite the strong, sustained demand for qualified employees to fill these better-paying, career-track positions, demand exceeds supply by a hefty margin. 

And we depend on these businesses in our daily lives.

I drove a truck to work today. I depend on that vehicle to make sure that I show up for all the responsibilities and requirements of a busy day. If the GMC Canyon won't go, I have to count on a highly certified, educated technician to get me back on the road. 

This is just one example of our "close-to-home" need for skilled workers. What about the big picture — our community's economic health, our tax base and the myriad interconnected relationships by which we measure our ability to meet our present and future needs? The skills gap is a nagging problem that may be today's inconvenience and a part of tomorrow's poor economic climate.

But here is the good news: UA-Pulaski Tech addresses the skills gap and those "middle-skills" in fundamental ways. 

At our aviation campus at the North Little Rock Airport, we offer FAA-certified airframe and power-plant training at the Aerospace Technology Center. Graduates from this program are qualified to work as airplane maintenance technicians at virtually any airport in the United States.

In North Little Rock at our main campus, UA-PTC offers advanced manufacturing technology training in computerized numerical control and non-destructive testing. Degrees and certificates in welding and heating, ventilation and air conditioning are available. The college has a wide variety of health care programs, including programs for nursing, dental assisting, respiratory therapy and radiography. In 2019, new programs for emergency medical technicians, surgical technology and heath information technology will begin accepting students. Looking at that future "pipeline" of talent, our career and technical education programs are aligned with the Little Rock School District Excel Program, as well as being involved with the North Little Rock High School's Center of Excellence.

UA-PTC's Little Rock-South location serves both Pulaski and Saline counties. There you will find not only our state-of-the-art Career Center that trains high school youth in automotive technology, culinary, MedPro, and other career and technical education programs, but also UA-PTC's 24th nationally ranked Culinary Institute; as well as technical programs focusing on diesel technology, collision repair, small engine technology for ATVs and commercial driver's license training. 

Additionally, the UA-Pulaski Tech Business and Industry Center develops customized training programs for central Arkansas industries. Some of Arkansas' most well-known employers, such as Caterpillar, Welspun, Bank of England and many others, have benefitted from our training for new and incumbent workers. We also train local small and middle-sized businesses through a partnership with the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.

So, if the good news is that we have access to training programs for in-demand "middle-skill" occupations, why is there a skills gap?

The challenge we face as a community is getting people to see the opportunities that exist in these areas. Today's tech jobs are clean, good-paying positions with benefits and opportunities to advance. The metro has UA-PTC — a technical college ranked 54th out of 700 two-year colleges for educational quality and affordability for our citizens to attend. Really, what else is needed?

Well, there are several other vital and cohesive elements required to solve the skills gap. 

First, let us improve the alignment of middle-skilled jobs by supporting innovative learning opportunities (e.g., internships, apprenticeships) that directly connect business and education. Next, consider building stronger community partnerships and encouraging robust engagement with employers. With that, how can employers partner with educators to promote the metro area's opportunities for trained graduates? Three, we must continue to strengthen the focus on educational/career pathways and invest in the upward mobility that these careers offer. 

Finally, we have spent a couple generations in this country convincing students that the path to prosperity only welcomes people with four-year or professional degrees. That is simply untrue. Therefore, it is up to each of us — parents, educators, business reps, chambers of commerce and state leaders — working together to show the future and present workforce the full menu of viable careers with family-sustaining wages. The educational pathways for those careers abound.

UA-PTC is proud to be a key in solving the skills gap problem. However, truly solving the skills gap must a coordinated team effort by our community.

Margaret A. Ellibee is chancellor of the UA-Pulaski Technical College, where she has worked since 2012.



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