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Jobs Bill Includes Education Reality Check

Malloy Proposal: Train Students For Jobs That Exist

By KATHLEEN MEGAN

October 23, 2011

At Wednesday's special legislative session on jobs, much of the spotlight is likely to be on Maine-based Jackson Laboratory's proposed billion-dollar project in Farmington.

But also important, particularly to higher education advocates, are several proposals Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has included in his jobs agenda to ensure that students get the education they need to qualify for jobs available in the state.

"This is the one area we had universal support from day one for everything," said Catherine Smith, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, referring to the educational elements in the governor's jobs package.

The education plan covers two main areas.

"The first is to look at our longer-term needs in the business area. What areas, what clusters do we expect to grow and how much talent are they going to need?" Smith said, speaking Thursday at an informational hearing on Malloy's jobs agenda. "And how does our university system, our community college system, our vo-tech system how do we do in terms of putting out talent to meet those needs?"

The plan includes a study to assess how well the educational offerings at colleges and schools coincide with the needs of employers.

On a shorter-term basis, Smith said, the workforce development plan calls for studying "where we are spending our training dollars, to see if there are ways to re-deploy those dollars" to ensure that "we are filling the gaps that we currently have in manufacturing."

She said she's been told of 500 to 1,000 job openings in aerospace and other types of manufacturing. "We need to make sure we are getting people to those jobs as quickly as we can."

The plan also calls for "cloning" a manufacturing technology program at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Smith said. The program is effective, she said, because the college works closely with local manufacturers to make sure students receive the right training for jobs that are open.

With a capital investment of $40 million over two years, similar programs would be established at three other community colleges and at three technical high schools.

"It's absolutely the first right step," Judy Resnick, executive director of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said of the plan to align education with job openings. "We have wonderful degree and certification programs, but they aren't necessarily meeting [employers'] needs. Many of them are, but many of them aren't."

"We have, particularly in the manufacturing community, a number of small and mid-size companies who are struggling to keep up with increased orders, and they need to hire new people," Resnick added. "They are really facing difficulties finding qualified skilled machinists, and it's not just machinists they need."

Joseph J. Vrabely Jr., the president and co-owner of Atlantic Steel and Processing in Waterbury, said it definitely makes sense to ensure that the state's current training programs meet the needs of employers. Vrabely, also a member of the State Board of Education, said he knows of 12 to 14 manufacturing companies that are having trouble finding the skilled employees they need.

"What people are looking for today," he said, "are skilled people who can come in and begin running a machine"

The gap between educational programs and the job market has long been a concern of Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, who co-chairs the higher education committee, and of Sen. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, on the program review and investigations committee.

Two years ago, Mushinsky said, when she was co-chair of program review, the committee did a study on the alignment between the education students were getting and the available jobs.

"We found major misalignment," Mushinsky said. They found, she said, that schools "were cranking out kids for overstuffed fields."

The number of students going into law, primary education and crime scene investigation, Mushinsky said, far exceeded the number needed, while there weren't enough students going into certain types of engineering and physical therapy.

"The kids self-select what they want to go into," Mushinsky said. "The school doesn't tell them the truth: Well, if you go into this, you're not going to have a job when you come out, and you're going to have some major loans to repay."

Willis said that while proposals in Malloy's jobs bill focus on creating new jobs by assisting companies and attracting new business to the state, "it is critically important that we also turn our attention on training for the jobs that are out there now. It is the low-hanging fruit."

Smith said that Malloy's jobs agenda also requires local boards of education to make sure that middle school students and parents are informed about programs at regional technical and agricultural science high schools.

"Kids are not encouraged to look at the broad array of opportunities that might be available to them in the state," Smith said. "There's a very large focus on the humanities and making sure kids learn history and to some extent science and math, but things like manufacturing are not necessarily encouraged by counselors or teachers or even parents."

Smith said she thinks this is because people don't realize that high-tech manufacturing employees earn $50,000 to $80,000 a year and sometimes $100,000.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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