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Editorial: Tailoring education to meet job demands is crucial

May. 13, 2013 @ 10:40 PM

The "middle-skills" gap that makes it tough on employers and equates to missed opportunities for people in the work force continues to plague West Virginia.

That was spelled out in a report in Sunday's The Herald-Dispatch, in which several Tri-State employers lamented to reporter Jean Tarbett Hardiman that they are having difficulty finding industrial electricians and millwrights. It's a challenge brought about in part because those positions have become more technologically advanced, often requiring good computer-based skills. And it's growing more urgent because many people now filling those jobs will retire in the next few years.

It's not a problem unique to West Virginia, by any means, but it serves as an obstacle for improving the state's economy.

The disparity between available jobs requiring "middle skills" -- usually equated with the type of two-year programs that are or should be available at community colleges -- and the number of people having those qualifications has been evident before now.

A study done by the Southern Governors' Association last year found that 29 percent of the West Virginia work force is low-skilled, but only 20 percent of the jobs are low-skilled. That means too many people suitable for too few jobs. Conversely, about 54 percent of the jobs in West Virginia require "middle skills" such as community college training, but only 44 percent of the work force had those skills, the study found. In other words, not enough workers qualified to fill the jobs.

There are ways to close the gap. An example of what can be done is at Ashland Community and Technical College, which has offered a broad electricians program that includes industrial training for two decades. ACTC officials say the hiring rate for its graduates is excellent, and they can step into jobs paying $16 to $18 an hour and even higher.

Local employers are hoping to convince Mountwest Community and Technical College in Huntington to launch a similar program. That's an effort that should move full speed ahead. It fits into the desired role of community colleges providing the training to match jobs in demand.

Employers and industry groups such as the West Virginia Manufacturers Association also would like more exposure in schools for career paths such as industrial electricians and millwrights so that students at a young age can be aware of the possibilities. The association also has developed a curriculum for students in vocational and technical career centers to further that goal.

All of those efforts are badly needed. As Karen Price of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association noted, tinkering with other economic development variables such as taxes and worker's compensation won't matter much if the state can't provide a sufficiently skilled workforce to prospective employers. In addition, existing employers' ability to reach their full potential could suffer. Individuals themselves who lack the necessary skills will miss out on potentially good-paying jobs and have reduced spending power to help feed the economy.

Government and the private sector should make closing this skills discrepancy an urgent priority.

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