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Building Career Paths for Tomorrow’s Talent

Wednesday, March 7, 2018  
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Lansing Community College’s $10 Million Center for Manufacturing Excellence

Michigan is bursting at the seams with diverse career opportunities. Much of the focus seems to fall on developing a talent pipeline for employees with college degrees to fill jobs in the 21st century knowledge economy. Member surveys by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce show, not surprisingly, that the ability to attract and retain the right talent is the number one concern business owners have in the region. Much of the emphasis in many families and in education has been geared towards encouraging students to seek a four-year college degree and possibly pursue advanced degrees as the best career path for students.

There has been a growing realization among educators and within the business community that an alternative pathway may be the best approach for a number of young people in our state. The professional trades sector alone will account for more than 500,000 jobs in our state’s economy by 2024, adding 15,000 new jobs each year during that time. Nationwide, millions of manufacturing jobs are expected to go unfilled in the coming decade due to a lack of trained candidates.

Education and workforce systems in the United States are struggling to keep pace with the changing needs of the economy and employers are struggling to find skilled workers who can contribute to their company's growth and success. Many leaders in business, education and government realize that an integrated strategy is needed to put students on career paths today that will meet our economic talent needs of tomorrow.

“For years, we sent kids out to school and let the chips fall where they may,” said Kristin Beltzer, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Now we need to strategically work to provide students stronger career pathways that make sense for them and our employers. That requires close collaboration between business and education.”

Education on the Front Line

Educators have been ramping up their efforts to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to building programs that will prepare students for high-paying professional trades jobs that are in demand in today’s and tomorrow’s workforce.

Lansing Community College (LCC) recently opened its $10 million, 11,000-square-foot Center for Manufacturing Excellence, which emphasizes the latest advances in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence.

“At Lansing Community College, we try to keep pace with changes in the economy and the skill sets needed for employers to match our graduates with their employment needs,” said LCC President Brent Knight.

Educational institutions like LCC work closely with industry leaders to identify which skills are needed in the rapidly changing global economy. President Knight says choosing which programs, many of which require large capital investments, is in some respects like placing a bet.

“There are a number of ways you can address the skills shortage, but you can’t choose them all,” said President Knight. “This is a $10 million investment and we can’t make very many of those, so it’s a bit of a risk involved. We always question - did we choose the right path, the right program and the right technology.”

Before the decision to venture heavily in robotics and automation, LCC made a decision to provide career training in aviation maintenance, a move that required considerable capital investment at the Mason airport. The aviation program has been so successful that it has been expanded to a second shift and is attracting hiring interest from airlines nationwide.

“Delta Airlines has invited us to be a partner with them,” said President Knight. “Last spring, we had 12 employers interview our students and I assume this spring it will be 20.”

The large investments required to operate many of the professional trades programs sometimes means that programs operate at a financial loss, which has to be weighed against the value the program provides to the community. One example is LCC’s nursing program which has prepared 75 percent of the registered nurses in the region.

“That program is operated at a loss,” said President Knight. “But, nursing is critical to the well-being of our community and that program is part of our commitment to the health of the region.”

In recent years, LCC has also recognized the need to offer more flexible scheduling of programs and online courses to fit the lifestyles of students and workers. Some programs are offered in a “fast-track” format, such as a registered nurse program that can be completed in one year if students meet certain requirements.

K-12: Helping Students Identify Career Paths Earlier

One of the historic challenges students have faced when focusing on career options has been that in many cases, the process didn’t begin until the student went to college. K-12 schools in Michigan have been working to change that.

“Career exposure doesn’t start in the 11th or 12th grade anymore,” said Micki O’Neil, communications director for the Ingham ISD and Eaton RESA. “Schools are focusing much earlier on how we help students to think differently about their learning. Then when they get into their high school years, we are targeting more on where their skills are, where their career passions are and how they can connect that to post-secondary education. It is about helping students develop from their early years into their high school years so they are more aware of what their options are.”

Programs like Ingham ISD’s Wilson Talent Center and Eaton RESA’s Career Prep Center offer high school students an opportunity to spend between two and two and a half hours a day to gain experience in careers in which they feel they might be interested.

“It might be an opportunity to job shadow or learn in a state-of-the-art welding lab,” said O’Neil. “It is an opportunity to expand their learning in a specific career field.”

The Wilson Talent Center and Eaton RESA Career Prep Center both offer about 20 programs including animal science, automotive technology, precision machining, computer aided design, healthcare, law enforcement, graphic design, cyber security, cosmetology, aviation, welding and engineering.

“There are a lot of different ways for students to explore,” said O’Neil. “Even if they start off in a program and decide they don’t want to pursue that path, they know that before they go to college or additional training after high school which saves money and helps them narrow down their scope.”

School districts across mid-Michigan are expanding program offerings to get students connected to potential career opportunities earlier. Eight years ago, Mason High School started building a robotics program working with First Robotics, a not-for-profit STEM engagement program for kids worldwide. Due to the success of the high school program, there has been significant growth in the elementary and middle school programs with more than 120 students involved in a robotics program district-wide.


Due to the success of the Mason High School robotics program there has been significant growth in the elementary and middle school programs with more than 120 students involved in a robotics program district-wide

“Our students create amazing designs each year. The structured planning, marketing, machining and judging teams help them prepare for the competition. The real fun is watching these students be so engaged in something they truly enjoy,” says Ben Shoemaker, robotics instructor at Mason High School. “They learn new skills, communicate their ideas, meet other students from all over the world and most importantly work as a team to accomplish their goals. Mason Public Schools is blessed to have a program like this and great sponsors in our area to help us continue to offer this opportunity to our students.”

Michigan Career Pathways Alliance

The State of Michigan recently created the Michigan Career Pathways Alliance, which brings together economic developers, employers and educators, as well as K-12 districts and higher education institutions with union leaders and businesses. The Chamber has been actively engaged in supporting this initiative. The Alliance has developed a comprehensive strategy aimed at overcoming challenges and concerns surrounding career exploration and job readiness, and then built recommendations to help Michigan residents, educators and job providers.

The Michigan Career Pathways Alliance initiative seeks to improve access to multiple pathways to good jobs in Michigan by:

  • Elevating the productive use of educational development plans (EDPs) statewide.
  • Implementing a career exploration and job readiness course before students begin to select their electives in high school.
  • Enhancing career counseling by supporting districts with the hiring of “career development facilitators” that support school counselors, with the focus of helping students explore career options, be it early or middle college, an apprenticeship, community college or four-year degree.
  • Showcasing flexibility within the Michigan Merit Curriculum to allow for more courses like geometry in construction, allow computer science as a foreign language, and career health programs to count as health and/or physical education requirements.
  • Expanding CTE (career technical education) statewide and starting the discussion to provide equitable opportunities for all students with additional funding to schools to operate CTE and Professional Trades programs.

Alliance backers are currently advancing a package of bills in the state legislature, including a provision to address a chronic shortage of CTE instructors. House Bill 5141 and 5142 – part of the Michigan Career Pathways package – seek to address that critical shortage by providing local schools with the opportunity to fill those positions with certified industry professionals who can train the talent of the future. The package has passed the House is awaiting action from the Senate.

“Make no mistake, these instructors are highly-trained, subject-matter experts who stand ready to teach students the skills needed to take their place in the workforce and continue to grow the state’s economy,” said Roger Curtis, Director of the Michigan Talent and Economic Development agency.

One of the goals of the Michigan Career Pathways Alliance is to allow for more flexibility in the Michigan Merit Curriculum.

“There are some schools doing a fantastic job with this,” said Curtis. “We visited a geometry in construction class where students were able to meet their math requirement and be exposed to a potential career. But many schools aren’t aware of how to integrate subjects like algebra into career classes. We’re working to tell those stories and share those best practices so everyone can benefit.”

Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce Talent Initiative

The Chamber has been actively engaging its members and partners in a major talent initiative. In addition to supporting Michigan’s Career Pathways Initiative, the Chamber is promoting an employer driven, in-house workforce training program developed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) uses supply chain principles to call on business and public policy leaders to transform workforce systems to be employer led and demand driven. The Chamber recently brought together executives from its Leadership Circle investment tier to initiate the process of creating a baseline of information about what skills businesses will need from their future talent pool.

“We want business leaders to have conversations with each other about what their needs are so we can share that baseline of knowledge with educators,” said Beltzer.

Benefits from using talent pipeline management practices are numerous: a reduced skills gap and a better-prepared workforce for employers, improved partnerships, increased transparency and opportunity for students and workers, and higher returns on education and workforce investments. Case studies show this approach is already yielding positive results.

“The end goal is to create a talent supply to meet the ongoing needs for the most critical business functions in the region,” said Beltzer.

Business Partnerships Leading to Classroom Excellence

More business organizations are recognizing the importance of partnering with education to help develop skills in today’s students that will be needed in tomorrow’s workforce.

The Dart Foundation is a private family foundation established in 1984 by William A. Dart and Claire T. Dart. Together with his father, William A. Dart founded the Dart Container Corporation. The Darts have a passion for STEM education and workforce development, long before they were widely discussed. For much of its existence, the foundation donated funds in widely diverse areas. Following a strategic planning process in 2016, the foundation decided it could maximize its impact by focusing on advancing youth education primarily in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The Darts have always believed that investments in education and training have an exponential impact on the community,” said Dart Foundation manager Emily Matthews.


Mark Cosgrove, Dean of LCC West talks with Dart Foundation Manager Emily Matthews and Dart Foundation Trustee Ariane Dart

The Dart Foundation is working towards supporting STEM programs and workforce development in 30 service areas across the country. A few of the larger grants locally included a $750,000 donation to Mason Public Schools, $500,000 to LCC’s Center for Manufacturing Excellence and $700,000 to create the advanced manufacturing wing at Ingham ISD’s Wilson Talent Center.

“The Dart Foundation Board feels strongly that youth today need to be career ready, and that a traditional college education does not properly train students for all jobs in the marketplace, nor is the right pathway for every individual,” said Matthews.

Since 1984, over 1,100 separate and unique nonprofit organizations and schools have received grants from the Dart Foundation, totaling over $71,000,000. Other recent grants include: Holt Public Schools, $505,635; Charlotte Public Schools, $89,550; DeWitt Public Schools, $75,000; and Williamston Community Schools, $129,270.

There are numerous other ways in which businesses are partnering with educators including job shadows, internships, mentoring and apprenticeships.

Bekum America offers an award-winning apprenticeship program which integrates on-the-job specialized training and development, together with offsite job-related college level courses, paid by Bekum. Program graduates must earn approximately 59 college credits (all class room and material expenses fully covered), and are required to work 8000 hours at Bekum in their structured program. Upon successful completion of the estimated 4-year program, graduates will be issued a Journeymen’s certificate by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We have supported the apprentice program to ensure that we continue to have a quality work force 5, 10 and 15 years from now,” said Steve London, Bekum’s president and chief operating officer. “We rely on them for the future of our company.”

Reaching More Students

One important focus going forward is getting the word out and encouraging more students involved in identifying career paths and pursuing a program or programs in which they might be interested. Career Technical Centers currently reach between 15 and 20 percent of the high school population. Educators emphasize expanding efforts so all students benefit from career exploration programs.

“Right now, students are not as aware as we would like them to be about career options,” said O’Neil. “We made this shift where we said, ‘go to college you can figure it out in two years versus let’s find your path and get you started before you go to college’. Now we have to shift it back because we have this huge skills gap. How do we do that? By starting earlier and focusing on their talent.”

If we as a region and state are going to close the skills gap, successfully get more students engaged in career exploration earlier and help more students build career pathways, it requires a collaborative effort by business leaders, educators and parents. Our ability to thrive in the 21st century economy depends on those efforts.

Click here to download the March issue of FOCUS.


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