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Skills gap: These words loom large in the minds of local business and industry leaders as well as educators. In a time of almost full employment, the skills gap is the measure of where we are as a community in terms of our education and training and where we need to be for strong employment and a strong economy.

Throughout the U.S., and at home in Arkansas, it is the middle skills that are in demand. And it is those middle skills that constitute the dreaded skills gap. Often technical in nature, they include soft skills like professionalism, showing up to work on time, and incorporating academic skills of reading, communication and math.

In Arkansas, we are fortunate that the educational and training programs that emphasize middle skills and their aligned career pathways are found at 22 technical/community colleges that offer certificates and two-year associate degrees. In the greater metro Little Rock/North Little Rock area, it is UA-Pulaski Technical College (UA-PTC).

Right now there are local businesses literally begging for middle-skilled workers with associate degrees and technical certification. Yet despite the strong, sustained demand for qualified employees to fill these better-paying, career-track positions, demand exceeds supply by a hefty margin.

We depend on these businesses in our daily lives.

I drove a truck to work today. I depend on that vehicle to make sure I show up for the responsibilities and requirements of a busy day. If the GMC Canyon won't go, I have to count on a certified, educated technician to get me back on the road.

This is just one example of our close-to-home need for skilled workers. What about the big picture--our community's economic health, our tax base, and the myriad of interconnected relationships by which we measure our ability to meet our present and future needs? The skills gap is a nagging problem that may be today's inconvenience and a part of tomorrow's poor economic climate.

However, the good news is that UA--Pulaski Tech addresses the skills gap and those middle skills in fundamental ways.

At our aviation campus at the North Little Rock Airport, we offer FAA-certified airframe and power-plant training at the Aerospace Technology Center. Graduates from this program are qualified to work as airplane maintenance technicians at virtually any airport in the United States.

In North Little Rock at our main campus, UA-PTC offers Advanced Manufacturing Technology training in computerized numerical control and non-destructive testing. Degrees and certificates in welding and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning are available.

The college has a wide variety of health-care programs such as nursing, dental assisting, respiratory therapy and radiography. In 2019, new programs for Emergency Medical Technicians, Surgical Technology, and Health Information Technology will begin accepting students.

And, looking at that future pipeline of talent, our career and technical education programs are aligned with the Little Rock School District Excel Program, as well as being involved with the North Little Rock High School's Center of Excellence.

UA-PTC's Little Rock--South location serves both Pulaski and Saline Counties. There you will find our state-of-the-art Career Center that trains high school youth in automotive technology, culinary, MedPro, and other career and technical education programs, as well as UA-PTC's 24th nationally ranked Culinary Institute. There are also technical programs focusing on diesel technology, collision repair, small engine technology for ATVs, and Commercial Driver's License training.

Additionally, the UA--Pulaski Tech Business and Industry Center develops customized training programs for central Arkansas industries. Some of Arkansas' most well-known employers such as Caterpillar, Welspun, Bank of England and others have benefited from our training for new and incumbent workers. We also train local small and middle-sized businesses through a partnership with the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.

So, if we have access to training programs for in-demand middle-skill occupations, why is there a skills gap?

The challenge we face as a community is getting people to see the opportunities that exist in these areas. Today's tech jobs are clean, good-paying positions with benefits and opportunities to advance. The metro has UA-PTC, a technical college ranked 54th out of 700 two-year colleges for educational quality and affordability for our citizens to attend.

Really, what else is needed?

Well, there are several other vital and cohesive elements required to solve the skills gap.

  1. Let us improve the alignment of middle-skilled jobs by supporting innovative learning opportunities (internships, apprenticeships) that directly connect business and education.

  2. Consider building stronger community partnerships and encouraging robust engagement with employers. With that, how can employers partner with educators to promote the metro area's opportunities for trained graduates?

  3. We must continue to strengthen the focus on educational/career pathways and invest in the upward mobility that these careers offer.

  4. We have spent a couple of generations in this country convincing students that the path to prosperity only welcomes people with four-year or professional degrees. That is simply untrue. Therefore, it is up to each of us--parents, educators, business reps, Chambers of Commerce, and state leaders working together--to show the future and present workforce the full menu of viable careers with family sustaining wages. The educational pathways for those careers abound.

UA-PTC is proud to be a key in solving the skills gap problem. However, truly solving the skills gap must be a coordinated team effort by our community.

Margaret Ellibee, Ph.D., is Chancellor at UA-Pulaski Technical College.

Editorial on 09/09/2018

Print Headline: How education can bridge the skills gap

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