Prepping the Pipeline for skilled employees
Interview by David Zaslawsky
Photography by Robert Fouts
Cleveland Poole is the chairman of the Region 7 Workforce Development Council. He was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky.
Montgomery Business Journal: What is the Regional Workforce Development Council? • Poole: The Regional Workforce Development Council is basically a tool that brings education and industry together to make sure that our education partners – K12 and community college system – are responsive to the needs of industry. So the continual flow of employees is being trained on what they need to be trained.
Big picture: What does the Workforce Development Council hope to accomplish and are there metrics to measure success? • The hope is to accomplish a better communication between industry and education.
How do you characterize Region 7 Workforce Development Council? • We are really in a rebuilding mode in our Regional Workforce Development Council. It kind of faded away for a little bit and we’re working hard to get industry to be more excited and interested in it. It’s not hard to get the educational folks to come to meetings. It’s harder to get business people to come to meetings. You have to have something there that is interesting to them and that’s useful for them that adds value. What we’re trying to do is twofold: One, is having meetings that offer content that is useful to business. The other is – at the same time – be able to show business what the education partners can offer them and put them together so they are talking, because that’s not always been the case. Traditionally in economic development it’s been a two-thrust: It’s been attracting new industry and loving up on your existing industry so they stay or expand. More recently, economic development is more of a three-pronged event, which is new industry, existing industry and workforce development.
Workforce development is such a hot topic now. • It’s something that nobody thought about until recently. There has never been as much of a gap between the available skills and the available needs.
Are you trying right now to get more of a business buy-in to the program? • Yes, that’s exactly right.
Talk about the importance of a certification program that employers can easily access to view a job applicant’s skills. • We need to make sure that the industry-type certifications that the high schools are able to give out are recognized and appreciated for what they are by industry.
In addition to a business buy-in, you’re also talking about educating business as well. • That’s right, and at the same time from an educational point of view, you have the problem of … trying to convince the parents to put their kid in that (technical education) program and their recollection of that program is not how they view their kid. I need to educate parents, too – that these types of skills are marketable and (students) can walk right out of high school and walk straight into a job. There are a lot of kids who aren’t going to go to college. You can go straight out of high school, get a well-paying job with good benefits and have a good standard of living and raise a family.
How many members are there in Region 7? • Actual voting members is 15 and associate members 25 to 30 – the educational part. They are non-voting. The (council) started as an oversight committee for funding for the community colleges. It still has that component of it, but one of the things that they just instituted is, the regional workforce council has to approve the dual enrollment programs that the community colleges have with the high schools. The Regional Workforce Development Council is looking at whether what you’re offering is high-wage, high-demand job training.
Which counties are in Region 7? • It’s six counties: Butler, Crenshaw, Lowndes, Montgomery, Autauga, Elmore. The glue that holds these six counties together is the automotive industry, especially Hyundai. But at the same time there are differences. Autauga, Elmore and Montgomery are pretty high-density, metropolitan-type areas where Butler, Lowndes, Crenshaw would be considered a lot more rural.
What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the overall workforce? • The major weakness across the board is work ethic or what people now call soft skills. Here’s the deal – you hire for skills; you fire for behavior. The behavioral things are work-ethic type things: Showing up late, taking too many days off, not passing a drug test. One of the problems we have is an unrealistic expectation on the part of industry to expect somebody to do something they have never been taught to do.
For some young people, there are no daily examples or positive role models. •That’s right.
What are the occupations in Region 7 that have the best future? • Industrial maintenance for sure. All the companies are fighting over the supply. Welding is in high demand all over the place. Good welders can make really good money. A lot of skills that you learn are going to be on-the-job-training-type skills. Having basic work ethic skills are hugely in demand.
I read a report that stated a worker shortage is a top priority through 2030 and it will need to be filled with local people because of a lack of migration. Is the council tackling this issue? • Part of what we have to do is work with education to create opportunities for the people that for instance are out of high school and out of work. They are not in college and they are not in high school anymore. If there is not something positive for them to do, they are going to get eaten up in the system in some negative way. The state has spent incredible amounts of money within the education department equipping the career technical centers with state-of-the-art equipment to train kids on welding or industrial maintenance or nurses or whatever and then they shut down at 3 o’clock. You have this incredible investment that is not used half a day.
You’re saying those resources should be used after 3 o’clock. • That’s right, and have the school open for additional classes that are offered to people who are underemployed or unemployed so they can learn these skills and (get jobs).
That could be through the community college system or Alabama Industrial Development Training program. • Right.
Talk about the critical role education now plays in workforce development and being responsive to industry’s needs. • That’s the key in what we’re trying to develop. The K12 system went for a long time, throwing out the idea (of) career tech or vocational education, and that everybody has to go to college – everybody has to go to a four-year college. Luckily for industry, that is no longer the case. They have begun focusing and funding career tech. The key is to make sure the schools and industry are talking so that the curriculum that is being developed by the school is what the industry needs.
Aren’t schools moving in that direction? • The K12 system has created a new job called career coach. The hope is that there will be a career coach that appears at least one day a week at every high school in the state. Their job is to map out a career for kids starting in high school. They are mapping out the curriculum for these kids to take.
Don’t you need buy-in from the students as well? • That’s exactly right.
The students need to see what success looks like and talk to each other to reinforce their goals. If 18- and 19-year-olds share their success stories with younger people it can be very motivational and relevant. • That’s why the job coaches bring in industry people to talk to their kids. If I’m a high school teacher, I can talk till I’m blue in the face about a subject. If I bring in other people that are saying the same thing, it starts to resonate and especially if I can bring in the 18- or 22-year-old person that these kids saw when they were in middle school or a freshman in high school.
In a Region 7 report, it stated that more jobs will require some postsecondary education and training. Talk about the impact of additional education and training, which is a big change. • It is. I saw a statistic recently that said something like 45 percent of the jobs by 2020 would require a two-year degree. Once you go to a community college, you focus on the critical, actual training to do a job rather than (a general subject). You’re going to a job when you are working for Hyundai, the ability to communicate is important, but after that you don’t need to know how to conjugate a verb.
What are you hearing from business and industry in addition to improving soft skills? • They like the idea of the high schools training kids to do … at least with an introduction to the skills they are going to need when they go into the factories. If you want to learn to weld and you’ve taken some welding in high school, then you know if it’s something that you want to do when you get out of high school. Job experience in high school not only teaches you what you want to do, but teaches you what you don’t want to do. It helps them determine where their appetite is. It’s a really good segue into the workplace. I worked for a dentist when I was in high school. I cleaned up after patients and developed X-rays. That was one thing I didn’t want to do.
What else are you hearing from business and industry? • Far and away, not Region 7, but the United States and the world – work ethic. When I started (dealing) with this stuff, I found a website that is www.workethic.org. It’s the Center for Work Ethic Development in Denver, Colorado. They have actually developed a curriculum that teaches work ethic and our company is sponsoring that in the high schools in Butler, Lowndes and Wilcox counties. Every ninth-grader in the State of Alabama has to take a career preparedness course. The state is being responsive to the overall needs (of business and industry). The governor, in December, had a press conference asking K12 and postsecondary to make a harder push to integrate soft skills to all of their programs. That’s one of the things that we’re requiring as the region for the community colleges for their dual enrollment – is to ensure that they have soft skills training embedded into all of their programs.
I read an interesting recommendation from the Region 7 report of incorporating soft skills, work ethics and customer service in K12. That sounds like a game-changer. Will it happen in the next five years? • It has to come. Here’s one of my frustrations that everybody is teaching work ethics in some form. You have the Department of Labor, AIDT, K12, postsecondary and I know I’m leaving out two or three other agencies or groups in the state. They are all teaching it, but nobody is talking to anybody about what they are doing and what’s working and what’s not working. The problem is if we have to wait 20 years, then it’s too darn late.
Is this coming soon? • It has to and you can’t wait until high school to teach it. You have to start in the second or third grade.
What is it going to take to get to where we need to be with workforce development? Is there a funding issue or mostly a communication issue? • Communication is key as it is in everything. One of the things we want to try and develop within our region and the governor’s workforce council is try to promote it in all the regions in the state and that is public-private partnerships. When Mark Heinrich, who is the head of postsecondary, was the president of Shelton State College in Tuscaloosa, he sat down with the Mercedes folks and created this program (mechatronics). I don’t know if it was 50 kids a semester or a year, but Mercedes actually interviewed these kids and paid for half of their tuition their first semester and if they hit a certain grade-point average they would pay the entire books, fees, tuition up to 108 college hours. Has that program been successful? Mercedes hasn’t hired every one of those people that has come out of the program because Toyota and Honda have hired the ones that (Mercedes) hasn’t. If we can convince industry to create what they need in a skill set and help (community colleges) pay to train the kid to do that, then there will be a flow of trained folks coming to that business.
Is success for the Region 7 Workforce Development Council a seamless pipeline of skilled employees, who also have soft skills for jobs that are needed? • I think that is exactly right. Having industry develop alongside with educational partners the skill that they need and that educational folks have available – the training – and put the kids through the pipeline (so) that once the educational folks are done with them, they are ready to go work.
The Region 7 report stressed the importance of an integrated software system to provide employers with easy access to see the skill sets, certificates, training and degrees of potential employees. • There is nothing like that that exists. That’s one of the things that the governor’s workforce council has recommended in its report. One of the things that the state has integrated is Work Keys. It is a nationally observed system (that shows proficiency in a variety of areas).