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No Worker Left Behind

March 5, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The National Association of Manufacturing is hoping it can play matchmaker to millions of workers seeking employment and thousands of companies demanding skilled laborers by endorsing a set of skills credentials.

Leaders of the largest industrial trade association in the United States, along with four industry groups, announced Wednesday their support for a nationally portable certification system for those in the manufacturing work force. These groups, representing professions from metalworking to welding and everything in between, hope that more of their member companies will begin requiring these skills credentials and that the country’s community colleges will begin helping more of their students attain them alongside traditional academic degrees.

The system supported by the trade association does not launch any new certifications or credentials but compiles a set of those already generally accepted by many manufacturers. This, the association’s officials argue, gives employers a clear set of formal documentation they should expect from potential workers to prove their skills, and job seekers a comprehensive pathway to guaranteed employment.

At the base of its suggested system, the manufacturing association recommends that every secondary student have the opportunity to earn a National Career Readiness Certificate -- an ACT-developed and increasingly accepted skills credential -- to complement their high school diplomas. This additional certification, the association argues, proves to employers that students who decide to enter the work force after high school “have the core academic and workplace competencies to be hired.”

“The U.S. is on the verge of what we would describe as a crisis in the work force pipeline,” said Richard L. Ferguson, chairman and chief executive of ACT, before emphasizing the value of showing work readiness. “[Employers] need more than workers, they need skilled workers.”

Workers typically attain industry specific skill training after graduating from high school. This, often on the campuses of community colleges, is the flashpoint for the “manufacturing skills gap,” as described by John Engler, the manufacturing group's president and former Michigan governor. Many supporters of industry skills credentials argue that students seeking academic degrees often will not also seek these work credentials because they cannot see their value in securing a job.

“The day when unskilled but willing workers could show up [for a job] has passed,” said Engler, echoing comments he made last week at a discussion on the future of middle-skill jobs. “We have to align worker skills with the educational pathway.”

At the next step of its certification system, the association argues that community colleges, often on the front line of educating displaced or directionless workers, need to embed “workplace competencies and industrywide technical skills” into their academic curriculums. Those in the process of earning an associate degree, the association suggests, should have the ability to concurrently earn a more industry-specific skills credential. Earned in addition to the ACT-developed certificate, for example, this next credential might include one from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills or the American Welding Society.

One community college leader present at the announcement called this industry-endorsed system a “game changer” for two-year institutions that often have to cobble together skill sets for students without much direct knowledge of their relevance to the prospective employers.

“This helps us translate what we do best,” said Roy A. Church, president of Lorain County Community College, in Ohio, noting that the endorsement of these stackable credentials would help two-year institutions improve their already close relationships with local industry.

Beyond industry specific certification and at the end of its suggested system, the manufacturing association recommends that educators encourage, and students seek, occupation-specific certification, such as one of the many offered by the Society for Manufacturing Engineers.

It is the hope of some in manufacturing that this skills certification system, compiled of existing credentials and endorsed by the NAM, will become a national standard that brings clarity to the variety of career-readiness programs available around the country. Others just hope it changes the public’s view of their jobs.

“Their perception of manufacturing is no longer accurate,” said Donald A. McCabe, senior vice president of Corning, Inc. “A lifetime in manufacturing is a good lifetime.”

 

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