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Labor Industry Employers: There’s A Skills Gap Colleges Should Address

Brennan Linsley
AP Photo
In this March 25, 2014 photo, workers talk during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Enacana Corp. well pad near Mead, Colo.

Colleges and universities have to better align the skills they teach to what employers say are needed, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation.

The findings are built on a previous study that surveyed more than 80 colleges and 60 employers in the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. The new report released this month surveyed five colleges in those states that have collaborated in a public-private partnership with regional employers in the oil and gas industry.

Researchers asked educators about the curricula they use to prepare “middle-skill” workers. Those positions require more education and training that a high school diploma, but less training than is needed for a four-year degree.

According to RAND, it’s the fastest-growing job market in the U.S. economy. The expansion of that job market is particularly apparent in the tri-state region where oil and natural gas technologies related to extraction has propelled those states economically. The region is expected to experience an 80,000 worker shortfall by 2025 because of baby boomer retirements and a talent pipeline that isn’t large enough to fill the openings.

Yet, employers say they struggle to find workers with both soft and technical skills. They said middle-skill workers lack workplace competencies like time management, being alert to safety issues and communication.

Senior social scientist Gabriella Gonzalez said knowing how to teach and assess those skills is a problem beyond the oil and gas industry.

“Everybody knows it’s an issue and yet everybody assumes it will be taught somewhere else because they’re hard skills to teach,” she said.

Instructors reported emphasizing interpersonal skills in 16 percent of courses.

Gonzalez said she is concerned that there could be economic repercussions if educators don’t partner with industry leaders to adjust those expectations.

“We are going to have a large portion of our population that’s not engaged in the labor force in the way that they could be. They could be either underemployed or unemployed. And the employers are not going to have jobs filled. They’re going to eventually leave,” she said.

RAND found that the most common challenges preventing collaboration between educators and employers looking to build a strong middle-skills STEM workforce are time and money. Only 35 percent of instructors indicated that they partnered with the industry.

Gonzalez said there is a desire for partnerships to create more aligned curricula, but that employers don’t know where to start or how to help.

The report recommends instructors reach out to employers, provide more work-based learning opportunities like internships and apprenticeships, and make teaching soft skills a priority.