Bridging the Skills Gap: What’s Working in Kansas

For large and small businesses alike, the skills gap is growing. Many employers report that finding qualified candidates is often difficult, and that colleges aren’t producing candidates who are truly prepared for the workplace.

In a 2015 American Association of Colleges and Universities poll, employers reported that they believed postsecondary institutions and schools could be doing a much better job of equipping graduates with broad employability skills in areas such as critical thinking or communication. Manufacturing employers also report having trouble finding candidates with the right technical skills.

How can educators and employers better coordinate their efforts to produce career-ready job candidates? One innovative program in Kansas is making an effort to work directly with employers and schools to bridge the divide.

“We’ve been hearing for years that we need to do a better job of aligning our education with our business needs. Our employers are really at a crossroads; they need talent,” says Zoe Gruber, Director of Workforce Training and Education for the Kansas Department of Commerce and the Kansas Board of Regents.

Gruber heads up the Workforce Aligned with Industry Demand (AID) pilot program and acts as the single point of contact between state employers and colleges. She works closely with employers, who provide her with very specific information about both the number of employees they need and what particular skills they require. In turn, Gruber is then able to communicate with community and technical colleges to guide their education and training programs to align with industry needs at that moment.

Effective communication between the academic world and the business community has been a common challenge for many, but as a joint employee of the Kansas Department of Commerce and the Board of Regents, which is the postsecondary agency for the state, Gruber is able to bring colleges and industry together. “I’m bilingual, I speak both languages,” notes Gruber.

Gruber, who personally travels all over the state to meet with employers, acts as a liaison between colleges and employers, and this role gives her the opportunity to communicate quickly and effectively between the two communities. This two-way communication effort is important to building the program because, as Gruber explains, “Our businesses will know that our institutions can deliver the kind of training that they need when they need it.”

The effort also works the other way. The business world is sometimes unaware of what postsecondary institutions have to offer, and Gruber’s role also includes illustrating ways in which students bring unique skills to the table and then adapt them to the workplace.

“I think it’s a great model for other states,” says Gruber. “I think this is a very replicable model.”

What are some specific ways that states can get started? Gruber lists the following:

  • Start and end the process with businesses—they are the driver.
  • Use a central point of contact that is linked to both economic development and postsecondary education to connect businesses with educational training providers.
  • Collaborate and partner with workforce and economic development partners.
  • Establish a competitive bid process to select training providers.
  • Ensure that short training programs include receipt of college credit and an industry-recognized credential.

Gruber partially credits word of mouth and demonstrable results to the program’s success. Businesses have started to refer other businesses to the program. “When you start having a successful program that turns out trained employees to business specifications and creates more jobs for companies and for the state, you start getting noticed.”

George Knowles is the Digital Communication Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.

 

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