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Employers scramble to build upskilling, reskilling programs

Robotics, automation and the COVID-19 pandemic have governments and private businesses trying out new ways for rapidly upskilling and reskilling employees and, more broadly, the workforce.

Stanley Black & Decker Inc., a $14 billion consumer and industrial products manufacturing firm, performed 650,000 hours of welding last year in its factories. About half of that work was done by robots, said Mark Maybury, CTO at Stanley.

Robots need "human oversight, they need human maintenance, they need human design," Maybury said. Although the firm's brand gives it an advantage in the job market, it still struggles to find people with advanced manufacturing skills, he said. "Go to any plant and you'll find several unfilled positions," he said.

To close the skills gap, Stanley this month launched a Vocational Leadership Program, a 12-month program to prepare employees for leadership roles in advanced manufacturing plants. The company plans to have 50 people in the initial cohort.

Stanley's program is part of a broader trend. Rapid changes in technology, automation, robotics and even pandemic-related job losses are propelling upskilling and reskilling programs. Governments and private employers are offering focused retraining programs that run anywhere from two weeks to a year. The problem is, there may not be enough of them.

"I think it's safe to say that the efficacy of job-centric upskilling has shown itself," said John O'Leary, state and local government research leader at Deloitte Center for Government Insights. "But we have yet to see success at scale."

No college degree? No problem

Another trend that's coupled with this job- and industry-specific training is less reliance on college degrees. People are getting jobs on the basis of their skills, competencies and potential.

Stanley's new vocational training program, for instance, only requires a high school diploma or GED. At IBM, 43%, of its U.S. job openings do not require a four-year degree. They include openings for software and application developers and systems administrators among others, the firm said. Similarly, the federal government no longer considers a college degree an absolute requirement for some jobs. It plans to move to merit-based hiring by the end of the year.

The problem of how to scale upskilling and reskilling programs is part of the ongoing policy debate. Candidates are pitching everything from free college to student debt relief.

I think it's safe to say that the efficacy of job-centric upskilling has shown itself.
John O'LearyState and local government research leader, Deloitte Center for Government Insights

While voters decide, federal pandemic relief funding is helping to create new training programs. The federal CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion stimulus approved in March by Congress, included state funding for upskilling and reskilling programs.

With $4.5 million in federal pandemic relief money, Utah initiated a "Learn & Work" program to help furloughed, laid-off and dislocated workers, as well as anyone else who needed reskilling and upskilling help. The program works with 16 higher education schools and offers in total 160 short-term training courses and certificate programs in healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, IT and others.

Training options include clinical lab assistant, injection molding, HVAC optimization certificate, professional truck driving, certificate of proficiency in basic accounting, diesel mechanics, Microsoft Office, QuickBooks for small business and so on. The training ranges from two weeks to six months.

Utah received its share of the relief money this summer, which was enough to pay the tuition cost for 5,000 students. Since August, it has enrolled nearly 3,300.

To participate in the Learn & Work program, colleges had to identify industry partners they're working with and demonstrate that any training proposal was for jobs that are in demand, said Kimberlee Carlile, director of the state's Talent Ready Utah program. "We wanted to confirm and follow-up that these are in-demand skill sets," she said.

People who enroll in the Learn & Work program are not guaranteed jobs after they complete their training, but they are made aware that participating employers are in need of the skills they are learning, Carlile said.

Trump vs. Biden

President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden have strikingly different educational proposals.

On free college education:

  • Biden supports making community college free. Public four-year colleges will be free as well for families earning less than $125,000 a year.
  • Trump does not support free college, calling it too expensive, but is seeking more support for vocational education programs.

On workforce training:

  • The Trump administration's 2021 fiscal year budget seeks an additional $900 million in career and technical training. This budget also increases to $2 billion -- a hike of $680 million -- for state vocational programs, including at the high school level.
  • Biden's platform also calls for $50 billion investment in workforce training, "including community college business partnerships and apprenticeships," according to his platform.

On minority-serving institutions:

  • Biden wants to invest $70 billion into historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions "to make them more affordable, well-equipped, and innovative," according to an analysis by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
  • In 2019, Trump signed legislation that will provide some $250 million a year to Black colleges.

On scholarships:

  • Biden would also double yearly Pell Grants to more than $12,000 and allow some of the funding to help with living expenses.
  • Trump has proposed a $5 billion federal tax credit on donations to fund scholarships to private and vocational schools, and apprenticeship programs.

Continuous learning is key

This increase in job-specific training doesn't invalidate the importance of college degrees. But college graduates may not be prepared for the jobs they seek, said Abe Eshkenazi, CEO of the Association for Supply Chain Management. The group has more than 45,000 members.

Before the pandemic, U.S. Dept. of Labor data found that there are six jobs in supply chain-related occupations per one qualified person, Eshkenazi said.

Supply chain jobs cover a range of skills, such as inventory management, logistics, transportation and distribution. The jobs can run the gamut from warehouse positions to occupations requiring advanced degrees. But many students graduate from college without the skills that businesses need, so the association is working with schools, as well as providing certifications to help improve supply chain-specific skills.

But Eshkenazi also sees the need for bigger changes.

"We ought to create more pathways to education and not develop barriers," he said. If the cost of education is a barrier, "then we need to remove that," he said, noting that he was only speaking for himself.

Stanley's Maybury made a similar point. He received part of his education in Europe and the U.K., where university costs are covered for qualified students. But the key issue for all employees, whether they begin in an apprenticeship program or a college degree program, is lifelong learning.

"We have a lifelong learning program here," Maybury said of Stanley. "Everybody up to the CEO is expected to take courses because things are changing."

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