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SMITH: Schools, businesses, unions must align in Michigan's talent race

• Nov 7, 2018 at 3:00 PM

Michigan faces not only a skills gap but a very insufficient pipeline of willing and able workers to fill jobs in a robust economy. Certainly, the continued low K-12 enrollments and the confusing and declining immigration policy leave us wanting for workers.

Equally troubling is the size of the disengaged workforce. Today, the average unemployment time is 40-45 weeks. All the research concludes those unemployed for over 40 weeks are unlikely to ever enter the workforce. This lack of re-entry shows up in the decline in able-bodied 25- to 35-year-old males in the workforce.

The goal of educational reform, especially for community colleges, should be to declare to parents and students that they will help develop the skills necessary for students of all ages to be able to compete in a world that is ever changing around the eight technologies identified as Industry 4.0.

Automation Alley’s Technology in Industry Report 2018 identifies these technologies and begins to define their impacts. Artificial Intelligence (AI); additive manufacturing and advanced materials; big data; cloud computing; robotics; Modeling, Simulation, Visualization and Immersion (MSVI); cybersecurity; and the Internet of Things (IOT) are already impacting every aspect of modern life.

While many changes have occurred in education, real pervasive fundamental restructuring has not been achieved. The access to information, just through Google alone (almost any question is answered), should be changing education from a lecture format and endless hours in the library to one of teachers facilitating learning. Education should be about career paths and lifelong learning.

The first question educators might ask is what is it that you as an individual like to do and what are you good at. Building off those answers should be the exploration of relevant career paths and skill development.

A first step in this journey must be for the three groups most responsible for short-term training to collaborate: education (K-12 and community colleges for entry level), companies and unions. All of these groups conduct training and have some exemplary programs, but operate on parallel tracks. Together these programs come nowhere close to the scale of meeting the needs of upskilling the current workforce or filling the more than 100,000 job openings in Michigan.

Experiential learning must be put back into the structure of the classroom. Think Kettering University. Most people learn best “by doing” and technology now affords us the opportunity to make the classroom a lively hands-on environment. Overall better early assessment of each person’s learning style or challenges can make a huge difference in people’s ability and willingness to learn. Teachers should be learning experts. People learn differently; some are visual, others auditory, etc.

F.I.R.S.T. Robotics is one example which could dramatically change S.T.E.M. education. The F.I.R.S.T. Robotics curriculum from preschool to high school is centered on experiential learning (hands-on) and requires and encourages peer group learning and teamwork. While a few schools and even states (Georgia) have actually adopted the curriculum for schools, most schools have a long way to go in integrating robotics, as evidenced in that it is still a predominately after-school activity.

Structuring education along the lines of competency-based achievement (digital badges and credentials) provides the opportunity for individuals to build confidence and leads to the individual being more willing and able to take personal responsibility for their actions and shaping the future. In general, schooling and even society value activity over achievement. “Seat time” is measured over performance. One educator puts it that we are measuring the “wrong end.”

Three factors in learning, which lead to three critical baseline skills in the work world are communications, teamwork and personal responsibility. This still acknowledges the importance of skills like problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking. But teamwork is too often sent out to the playground or found in sports, not as much in the classroom, even though the first skill in the work world is often how well you can work in teams or with coworkers. Likewise, peer group learning gets lost in the lecture for 50-minutes scenario. Even adults continue this pattern of lost learning opportunities in conferences where they get talked at far too much and not enough real-time for interaction with the other participants. Networking time is often an afterthought or too limited in most conferences.

If Michigan is to win the “Talent Race,” parents and students must demand relevant experiential learning environments that lead to in-demand jobs. Companies have to create new partnerships with educational institutions, beginning with supplying employees that can teach a few nights a week, maybe even as part of their job responsibilities. Educational institutions have to seek out soon-to-be and retirees who can share their skills in the classroom. Education leadership at all levels must be willing to implement transformational classroom experiences.

About the author: Doug Smith is executive director of Economic and Workforce Development at Oakland Community College. This commentary first appeared in Bridge Magazine, an online publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan.

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