Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Thoughts from the field: Training a business major to run AutoCAD

Just got back from more fieldwork in Western Wisconsin, where I and a member of the research team hung out at the local community college, 4-year university, and lots of factories.  One of the enduring impressions of my time there was an interview and shop floor tour with the Director of Tooling at a mid-size company that made mostly automotive parts.  Upon answering my question about the applicant pool for recent openings, he bemoaned the fact that the local community college graduated so few students in his area (i.e., tool and die), but really, what he needed was people with a strong work ethic, a good head on their shoulders, and a willingness to learn.  This was largely due to the fact that they had to train people anyways on their own machinery and in-house processes.  In fact, he noted that sometimes experience (whether on the job or in school) was a negative, as this meant people came into the company with ideas about how things should be done.  In other words, a complete newbie could be molded to fit the organizational culture and workflow.

This was clear when he mentioned that two recent hires were business majors looking for work, and who were hired to do design work, mostly using AutoCAD software.  They trained the new hires to use it and after a couple of months they were off and running.  Sure, it would have been ideal to not have to spend the time doing that training, but the guy I was talking to observed that the skills and aptitudes that got these people through college - hard work, good reasoning abilities, willingness to learn - were in the long run more valuable than an abridged training period. 

While we have many results and findings coming out from this study, this one is rising to the top because we're hearing it across the state and across sectors.  Since our focus is on how classroom teaching and training programs can be designed to meet the needs of both employers and educators, the question becomes one of how to leverage the expertise and insights from instructional designers (especially in the learning sciences, and also in STEM education circles) to help people design their curricula and organize their classrooms.  But, it also points to the fact that, because these aptitudes are learnt from childhood and strongly molded in the home and community, that the answers to these issues are not solely to be found in our schools, colleges, or universities.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Can "soft skills" be taught?

This is one of the recurring questions that comes to mind as we enter the mid-point of this study.  Raised by some employers and educators, this question gets to one of the biggest areas of need we are seeing in the workplace - the ability to communicate, reason, problem-solve, and be a team player.

Unsurprisingly, many people have thought long and hard about this, and here is a nice post from the Workforce Solutions group at St. Louis Community College.  A key idea is that:

"By the time students show up at an institution of higher education, they have been socialized to a large extent. They come with habits, preferences and behaviors deeply rooted in their personal experiences. So, the likelihood that a college student will be able to demonstrate acceptable non-cognitive behaviors in class is more of a function of what they learned from their parents, K-12 education and other experiences."

The author then goes on to state that this doesn't mean the postsecondary teacher is off the hook, and we are collecting some very nice examples of course curricula and classroom techniques that teachers (mostly in community colleges!) are using to explicitly cultivate the so-called "soft skills."  I call them so-called because it's a pretty awful catch-all term, especially since it is intended to capture some behavioral norms that are culturally embedded - something the term "skills" doesn't really capture.

In any case, figuring out how to cultivate these aptitudes and skills in students seems to be something that would benefit not just the workforce, but the students themselves as they embark on their careers and lives.  Figuring out just how to do that is turning out to be one of this research program's primary areas of inquiry. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lots of news about the workforce and education

This seems to be a good time to be thinking about these issues, or depending on your perspective, perhaps an unfortunate time.  In any case, the past 2 days have seen a few noteworthy developments on the topic being addressed by this study: the relationship between employer expectations and what educators are providing to students.

First, President Obama highlighted these issues in his 2014 State of the Union.  Some choice selections include:

"So tonight, I've asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America's training programs to make sure they have one mission:  Train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now."

"That means more on-the-job training and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life. It means connecting companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs. And if Congress wants to help, you can concentrate funding on proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs."

"Of course, it's not enough to train today's workforce. We also have to prepare tomorrow's workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education."

Second, in Waukesha today the President, continuing on this line of thinking, made it clear what types of postsecondary degrees and training he felt would lead one to a fruitful, middle-class, family-supporting career:

"A lot of parents, unfortunately, maybe when they saw a lot of manufacturing being offshored, told their kids you don't want to go into the trades, you don't want to go into manufacturing because you'll lose your job.  Well, the problem is that what happened -- a lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career.  But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree -- I love art history.  (Laughter.)  So I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.  (Laughter.)  I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need. "

Finally, a report came out of Bentley University (in MA) called the Prepared U Project which is about the types of skills students need to succeed in today's workforce.  The data released this week are based on 3,149 respondents (corporate recruiters, biz executives, college students) and there's a lot of good stuff in there.  One being that 19% felt that "hard" skills were essential, 14% felt that "soft" skills were essential, and 66% said both.  That's a topic that we're addressing directly in our own study, and its great to see others are tackling this issue, in part to counteract some of the more simplistic ideas about what constitutes a skilled workforce or marketable skills that are out there.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A question about living wages in "STEM" jobs

There's lots of ink spilled and policy rhetoric swirling around "STEM" these days (in fact, its been years, but it's reached a fever pitch recently), which is a catch-all term for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Many critique the acronym for being meaningless, and if you think about what "technology" means or about the many disciplines and sub-fields in "science" then I think these critics have a valid point.  Of course, adding an "A" for arts to make it "STEAM" makes it even more meaningless, unless one is merely trying to simply convey a collaborative of disciplines in one fell swoop.  So instead of saying mechanical engineering, physical chemistry, theoretical mathematics and genetics, I'll just say STEM to capture this broad swath of fields, just like the term "humanities" encompasses many unique disciplines.  That makes some sense. 

But it becomes problematic in my view when the acronym is used, as it commonly is, to speak about things where nuance and specificity is required in order to maintain any semblance of coherence or realism.  And when one speaks of "STEM jobs" I think coherence flies out the window.  To their credit, scholars such as those out of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce make the point that "there is a great variety of STEM occupations" in their report titled "STEM." According to their projections, in 2018 about 51% (or 4 million) of the "STEM jobs" will be in computer science, 28% in engineering, 13% in life and physical sciences, 6% in architecture, and 2% in mathematical sciences.  This report is actually one of the best in drilling down into the specific competencies required for various occupations and offers a fairly nuanced discussion of the issues.

But my issue with the term "STEM" as it applies to jobs is twofold.  First, in the field of practice (e.g., job sites, college classrooms) when I mention the term "STEM jobs" I get blank looks and requests for specificity.  In the non-policy or non-research world you've got to be specific and talk about welding or PLC (programmable logic controller) design.  Otherwise, you're talking gibberish, or worse, ivory-tower-ese. 

Second, depending on how one slices and dices the world (i.e., defines the term) one can get high-wage jobs, middle-wage jobs, or low-wage jobs into your definition of "STEM jobs."  My impression is that most people equate "STEM jobs" with high-wage jobs such as robotics engineering, stem-cell biotechnology research, and so on.  In my visits to advanced manufacturing sites around the state of Wisconsin I've been struck by the fact that yes, these jobs do exist, and many of them are held by people with advanced degrees in fields such as engineering.  But a company of say 100 people may only need 1 or 2 of these people.  Many, many more who are operating CNC machines or welding parts are making between $19 and $22 an hour.  Now that is a decent wage and nothing to sneeze at, but it certainly isn't comparable to what the quality control engineer upstairs is making.  But aren't those jobs in that company "STEM jobs?"  They require technical skills in programming, mathematical skills to do the welding or machining, and more. 

The problem is, according to the folks at MIT's Department of Urban Studies, where they study living wages, $19 to $22 an hour is just at the living wage for a family of 2 adults and 2 children where one person is the sole earner (see here).  It is clear that some of the "STEM jobs" provide far more than a living wage, but let's be clear (and honest with the students who are being encouraged to pursue STEM) - within this catch-all term there are a host of different fields and occupations and earning potentials.  It isn't a get-rich quick pathway and I wonder if the bulk of the jobs in "STEM", if one defines the term to include CNC operators and the like, are on the lower end of what some consider to be a living wage or a wage sufficient to enter and remain in America's middle class.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

New publications out from the study

So the long-awaited (and long worked on) policy brief is available.  It took awhile to get acquainted with the literature, analyze the data, and develop some preliminary conclusions and arguments about the whole thing.  The policy brief is available here at the WISCAPE website.

Since the editing process ended up slicing much of the original text, I've also published the brief in its longer form as a WI Center for Education Research Working Paper.  The abstract is below and the full paper is at the WCER website.

ABSTRACT: Wisconsin and the nation are struggling with how to address persistent unemployment and an economy recovering too slowly from the Great Recession of 2008. While economists point to a host of reasons for sluggish growth, including low aggregate demand, outsourcing, spending cuts, and so on, some argue a principal culprit is the "skills gap." Based in part on this interpretation of the causes of slow economic growth, the policy response at national and state levels is increasingly focusing on the educational sector as a way to cultivate more skilled workers. Yet important questions about the nature of employer expectations and the subsequent implications for the nature of educational programming and curricula remain unanswered. In particular, notwithstanding the ongoing debate about whether a skills gap exists at all, empirical evidence does not support the assumption that employers' primary need is technical training of potential workers. In this working paper I analyze Wisconsin's education and workforce development policies in light of the research literature on the topic, along with data from a survey of 181 Wisconsin-based employers who were asked about the types of skills they found lacking among job applicants in manufacturing. The results indicate that employers are seeking new hires in a variety of job categories such as skilled labor, engineers, and welders, each of which have distinct requirements for training and skill sets. Employers report that work ethic is the most important skill or applicant attribute lacking in the labor market, followed by technical skills, math skills, and social skills. These results highlight the fact that employers seek such a variety of skill types that a sole focus on technical or vocational training will not provide students with the types of skills that will make them competitive in the job market. The evidence also suggests that the effects of current policies that tend to remain silent on non-technical skill development could be enhanced by adopting a more comprehensive notion of skills, as well as creating programs and curricula that cultivate these multi-faceted skills in 2- and 4-year college and university classrooms.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The primacy of work ethic

One of the over-riding concerns expressed by HR directors, CEOs and shift supervisors in our dataset as well as with others was problems with what they called "work ethic."  I put the term in quotes because it means different things to different people, so making assumptions that it means the same thing across the board is a poor assumption.

That said, one VP summed it up nicely: "I'd rather have a B- student who knows how to interact with people and will show up for work, than an A student who is a jerk and has lots of excuses about missing work."  These results are consistent with a recent analysis I did on surveys from 181 manufacturers, as well as interviews I'd done this past summer.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

News: expansion of the study

Long time no posting here, but there's good news to share.  We've received support from the National Science Foundation to expand our study to encompass the entire state of Wisconsin, and by the end of the study (sometime in 2015) we'll have conducted over 200 interviews with employers and educators in 6 regions of WI.

Next week is the first week where my colleague and I will start data collection in earnest.  Also, within the next couple of weeks a policy brief will be published based on the early stages of data collection and policy analysis from this study. 

So stay tuned.