Point of View

Too few skilled workers in North Carolina? Here’s how we supply them

February 14, 2013 

In the partisan clamor of the 2012 elections, a bipartisan agreement could be detected: The creation of adequate jobs in the U.S. is central to any dream of the American future. But is there a way to create an advanced American manufacturing workforce without incurring more national debt? Complaints by corporate executives have pointed to a dilemma that limits U.S. manufacturing: Millions of jobs are available but unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants, a point that President Obama made in a speech on manufacturing that he gave in Asheville on Wednesday.

To increase and maintain manufacturing enterprise, we need a workforce trained for increasingly sophisticated and ever-changing technologies. The current shortage is unacceptable when unemployment remains high and where job training is a well-organized national priority in competing countries like Germany and China.

It helps to recognize that education and job training have different objectives. Schools and colleges primarily are in the business of creating a more informed citizenry with heightened communication and intellectual skills and a wider awareness of the world beyond self-interest.

In its enormous variety, commercial manufacturing requires skills that are constantly changing. Like general education, however, such training would require expert faculty, buildings, living amenities for nonresident students and access to modern equipment. The variety of techniques and skill levels needed in all of U.S. manufacturing would require an excessive number of courses of varying depth if offered within single institutions.

It would be better to establish training centers that teach skills needed only in a subset of related industries and located near those industries.

Job training today is highly fragmented, offered at many levels of competence. Community colleges offer courses in traditional trades; companies pay new workers for on-the-job instruction; teaching companies offer online, printed or shop instructions in a variety of traditional skills; a few businesses offer hands-on shop instruction with commercial machines.

There always will be a need for such instruction. Among them, however, there is insufficient capacity for the rapidly changing technology of advanced manufacturing.

We should create Corporate Training Centers to provide up-to-date training and to offer corporate-recognized certifications. For each CTC, suitable facilities could be rented or built near cooperating colleges or universities. Training faculty and curricula would come from a sponsoring corporation or consortia of cooperating industries with related labor needs. Students would be admitted through high school or college backgrounds or previous work experience.

Costs of creating, equipping and maintaining CTCs would be borne by the corporate sponsor, who would rent or build housing, social and dining facilities. If a center used nearby college facilities, costs would be included in CTC matriculation fees.

Since return on investment in well-trained labor is very high, matriculation costs should be low and financed by banks or corporate sponsors as training loans to be paid back during the earning years. For the gifted, corporations might establish training scholarships.

American corporations today are in a position to make such investments. The Federal Reserve listed corporate working capital at $15.07 trillion in 2011, a decades-long high. This amount of capital should be compared with similar assets of all federal, state and local governments combined: $3.87 trillion. The fact is that state-supported colleges and universities have endured cuts for the last few years and are unable even to maintain offerings at the level attained in 2006.

Public colleges could not create CTCs without detailed corporate input and a corresponding reduction of their educational missions at current funding levels.

Private investment of this nature would have obvious advantages. Because of the direct management by sponsoring companies, the quality and skills of labor could be more in line with current corporate needs. CTCs providing supervisor-level training, if built in conjunction with research universities, would mean mutually beneficial interactions between students and faculties of both. A CTC would tend to attract new industries with like needs, creating industrial parks with potential technical interactions.

If undertaken in the current job-deficient environment, such long-term investments would provide an immediate construction stimulus to the economy. The enhanced profits of increased manufacturing would return those CTC investments. The increasing number of jobs would enhance the American middle class on which both business and government depend, a win-win investment.

Robert Merriam, a retired science professor from the Stony Brook University of New York, lives in Chapel Hill.

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