Tech-focused educational partnerships are key to closing skills gap

While the abundant supply of natural gas in Western Pennsylvania has led to a production boom in the plastics manufacturing sector and allowed many companies to invest in new and expanded facilities, there is a looming shortage of skilled technical workers in this growing and lucrative field. Already more than 5,000 people are employed by plastics-related companies in the region, but that number will continue to rise. Shell Chemical Appalachia’s new plant alone will support 600 jobs once construction is complete, and by 2030, Pennsylvania is expected to produce 40% of the nation’s natural gas.

vocational training

New job creation—coupled with technological advances in machinery and record low unemployment rates—has left plastics companies scrambling to fill the widening labor gap. To meet their growing workforce needs, companies are looking at creative ways to efficiently train a large number of Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC) certified workers who are well-versed in plastics manufacturing technology. This may require a range of skills from blueprint reading and precision measurement to production planning and understanding environmental impacts and the molecular structure of various materials. And working with today’s advanced machinery and equipment often requires a familiarity with robotics and automation systems.

One path toward addressing this issue is through partnerships with educational institutions that are equipped to train potential employees and create a pipeline of certified workers. The success of such programs, however, depends on their structure, the instructors’ credentials and the institution’s ability to be a knowledgeable and effective industry partner. As companies look for the right fit, there are several markers that usually indicate whether a program is going to produce strong training results.

What tools do these educational institutions use to keep abreast of industry trends, technological advances, and the new and constantly evolving skills students need to acquire? Strong educational partners will have an acute understanding of the plastics industry and maintain close relationships with the individual businesses that comprise this industry. At the Community College of Allegheny County, forming industry advisory committees is one of the strategies we use to cultivate supportive employer-educator relationships and develop on-point curricula. These committees provide a forum for sharing information, trends and analysis. We have found it invaluable for companies to play a role in developing customized training.

Another important characteristic of strong educational partners is a history of maintaining long-term relationships with other companies—whether in similar or different industries—to train workers for specific jobs. Are these educators committed to learning the nuances of the business and dealing with the challenges described by executives? Having this ongoing dialogue is the key to putting together customized, industry-relevant curricula. It also enables the educators to potentially identify additional skills gaps companies may not have considered.

For example, discussions may initially focus on technical skills and a need for workers to be familiar with robotics and automation systems, but they could eventually reveal holes in essential skills, such as deficiencies in problem-solving, teamwork, technology competencies, and oral and written communication. These essential, or “soft,” skills give potential employees, and the companies that employ them, a competitive edge because workers who possess them are in a better position to fill middle- and upper-management positions down the road, making them valuable, long-term assets.

Dr. Quintin Bullock
Dr. Quintin Bullock, President, Community College of Allegheny County.

Also, when choosing a program, accessibility to training facilities is another vital consideration. In highly technical fields, training cannot be conducted in classrooms alone. To best prepare students for the type of situations they will encounter every day on the job, they need hands-on training in sophisticated, state-of-the-art labs that replicate complex technical problems so they can learn how to resolve them.

With the prevalence of robotics and automation in today’s advanced manufacturing workplaces, mechatronics is a particularly valuable skillset for employees or potential employees to have. Mechatronics technicians are highly sought after by employers because of their ability to install, maintain, modify and repair high-tech robotic systems, programmable logic controllers and other automated equipment. Plastics manufacturing companies may want to consider institutions that are capable of teaching this emerging discipline.

Finally, it is essential for continued success that both employers and educational partners commit to regularly giving and accepting feedback. Both parties should expect to modify the program and its curriculum as workplace conditions require it.

Increasing production demands supported by the Marcellus and Utica Shale natural gas supply have made Western Pennsylvania a national, if not global, competitive hub in the plastics manufacturing industry. To maintain this competitive edge, companies would be wise to seek ongoing partnerships with institutions willing to work with them to develop customized, tech-focused programs to build a pipeline of technically skilled workers in order to close the widening workforce gap.

About the author

Dr. Quintin Bullock is President of the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, PA.

Lead image: Elmirex2009/Adobe Stock

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