Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Making workforce development more precise

One of North Carolina’s chief economic development goals is to attract more high-tech, advanced manufacturing jobs, the kinds in semiconductor and pharmaceutical plants. The challenge is to convince out-of-state companies to come here because we have enough skilled workers for these large, complex facilities. This is hard because other states are trying to do the same thing.

So workforce development is what everyone’s talking about.

Recently, I talked to a group trying to help this along in North Carolina. The National Institute for Innovation and Technology, headquartered in Maryland, is preparing to launch an ambitious online portal called the National Talent Hub.  It will start with a pilot in the Research Triangle and Fayetteville.

NIIT CEO Mike Russo and his team have developed something aimed at the problems companies have  filling jobs. I looked at a demo (about 22 minutes in on this video).

For enough workers to get the right skills, several things have to go right. The community colleges need to be in sync with employers.  This requires precise communication with business about what kinds of skills, like knowing how to use measurement instruments, how to do statistical process control, or interpretation of drawings and schematics. And not just skills, but specific levels of those skills.

It’s a problem if colleges and employers don’t have great communication and students aren’t trained in skills that matter. The Talent Hub makes things more transparent for employers, colleges and students/job-seekers with a database of very detailed profiles.

For example, a particular class — say, at Wake Tech or Fayetteville Tech —  will have a profile that details the specific competencies  that a student will learn. Each competency has levels, and the college will specify what level is being taught in a course.

The employer is also filling out a profile with competencies for each job, also with skill levels. “We set up a core competency team with employer representatives throughout all the industry subsectors,” says Russo.

And students or veterans leaving the military can create a profile, and if they have taken a particular class at a community college, the Talent Hub software is populating the profile with their skills and competency levels. Once individuals create profiles, they can keep adding to them,

stacking credentials. Employers can look at a job prospect in the hub and see how their competencies and levels match up with jobs. There’s a standardization of terms and data, not vague resumes, general course descriptions or imprecise job descriptions.

Robert Weinman

“Competencies have enough detail [from employers] to communicate to the training provider and the candidate, this is genuinely what we need,” says Robert Weinman, NIIT’s director of workforce innovation.

The advantages

There are several advantages here. One is that colleges and employers can see how courses match up with job requirements. Community colleges have advisory committees for technical programs made up of industry people, and that’s where job requirements and relevant classes are discussed. But the level of detail and participation may be hit or miss.

With detailed profiles, an employer can see the specific skills and levels of each class and any college can see what the employers really want. Colleges can see in a region which employers put a high priority on what skill, and even detect emerging skill requirements in real time.

“The employer will win because he’s not sifting through a whole bunch of resumes that mean nothing,” says Weinman. “The school wins because they know exactly what they should be doing with their curricula.”

And job seekers can see their skills gaps. For example, if a student fills out a profile, the hub can score them against various jobs.  The student might be at 50 out of 100 for a particular job, but the addition of a single class might raise the match to 80. That is a pretty strong signal for what they need to do to increase their marketability.

One way this can produce more STEM workers is by making the education process more efficient at producing workers who can start right away at, say, semiconductor plants. If they see they are maybe one or two classes away from landing a good job, they are more likely to stick it out.

But there’s another step that can help. Let’s say a student part-way through an associate degree is already an 80% match for a job with a local employer. It’s in everyone’s interest for the student to finish the program and get a degree or certificate. But the student is ready to work; we should be getting STEM students into the workforce as soon as possible. One way is through apprenticeships, in which students can work part-time and take classes part-time.

“Fill the pipeline very wide at the beginning,” says Weinman, “and there’s exit points for students to begin working with employers.”  NIIT has a five-year contract with the U.S. Department of Labor to expand apprenticeship programs.

Although the pilot will be focused on Raleigh-Durham and Fayetteville, community colleges and employers around the state will be able to go on the site post-launch and create their own profiles.

Colleges filling out the profiles will have to go deep into the weeds to itemize each skill and proficiency level for their technical classes. Some schools may discover some skills they thought were being taught, aren’t. This will be tedious work. The same is true for companies. Front-line supervisors and experienced employees probably need to be involved to make sure profiles have accurate competencies and skill levels.

Who they are

Russo worked for semiconductor giant GlobalFoundries (as did Weinman), for trade group SEMI, the semiconductor trade association, and has been involved with a number of national workforce initiatives. His experiences convinced him that an effective, scalable portal required an independent outfit like NIIT. It needed to be developed by people with experience in industry, community colleges and government, but who could work with all the stakeholders rather than being in a particular silo.

In North Carolina, the state, the community colleges, school districts, the private sector and nonprofits are all trying to find workforce solutions. They are doing good work. North Carolina has been rated high in workforce development by Site Selection Magazine. The NCWorks Commission last August rolled out NC Job Ready Workforce Investment Grants, which could be up to $1 million this fiscal year, according to Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders.  In July, she unveiled the First in Talent plan, a recognition of the importance of workforce development. There are portals like NCcareers.orgThe Navigator, the site of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, and the state community college system’s ApprenticeshipNC. Wake Tech has the WakeWorks Apprenticeship initiative. The N.C. Biotechnology Center has launched efforts to meet the demand for thousands of workers in biopharmaceutical manufacturing.

So NIIT is coming into a state that knows it has a skilled worker shortage and is trying to do something about it. But more work needs to be done. We are winning some projects but not others. Intel is going to Ohio to build $20 billion worth of chip factories.

With support from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Labor, NIIT, with a staff of five, including technology veteran Joe Magno, has around $15 million to sustain itself for the next five years.

“We don’t have huge overhead, and we’re mission-oriented,” says Russo, “so we’re not in it to make money. We’re in it to build a sustainable system in one nationally integrated infrastructure.”

The timing seems right. The pandemic has disrupted supply chains, particularly for semiconductors, which are the building blocks of all our technology. Tensions with China have given greater urgency to expanding our domestic advanced manufacturing capability.

“The reason why we picked North Carolina is there’s a huge need,” says Russo. “Huge need, great resources, but really struggling to actually grow that talent pipeline.”

Even as North Carolina has been hoping to attract a chip plant, our workforce is stretched thin. The state unemployment rate in December was 3.2%.  We have a potential pool of folks who could be given more technical skills — the 600,000 North Carolinians between 25 and 44 who dropped out of college – and maybe something like the talent hub can show them a clear path to better-paying jobs.

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