Area educators discuss the education-vs.-training dichotomy

 

Recently, former labor secretary Robert Reich told a conference for college and university officials that they needed to resist the temptation to focus on jobs as a measure of the value of their institutions. Reich’s first concern is that colleges and universities become trade schools or vocational schools that are measured by their return on investment. His second concern is that they forget that higher education is not just a private investment, but also a public good.

Reich also said that there was too much focus on employment data, first-year salaries and graduation rates. His position is that college business schools focus on the business of education, or knowing the “why,” and not training, or knowing “how,” thus the need for a solid liberal-arts core blended with an eventual focus on the student’s career field of choice.

On a local level, Reich’s fears seem to be dispelled and there is agreement from our area higher education institutions that both the “why” and the “how” are taught in tandem, resulting in graduates that are well-rounded in the liberal arts and business school skills and ready to enter the workforce.

“I’m a strong believer in the value of liberal arts and I think we’ve done students and our broader community — which includes the business community — a disservice by creating what I call a false opposition between what is needed in the workforce or to build healthy communities and the liberal arts,” says Mary Papazian, president of Southern Connecticut State University. “This is due in part because of the quality of education. It’s the skills and knowledge you develop — your communication skills and your creative-thinking skills — and it embraces all of that and what you learn in the liberal arts. You have a broad basis of knowledge across many disciplines and you never know when you’re going to need that. It’s that quality of being able to learn that ultimately is what business is really looking for.”

Papazian adds that students need to have basic skills, including the ability to read, be literate, speak in complete sentences and do quantitative work as well as understand basic statistics in order to be employed in business.

“The question becomes, ‘How do you put that to use in a business environment?,’” says Papazian, who earned a doctorate in English literature from UCLA. “If a new employee doesn’t know how to learn and have some flexibility of mind, they aren’t going to be successful. They’ll have a very narrow skill set and, as business, the economy and needs change, they will not have the flexibility to change with it. That’s really the key.

“You need the basic skills of literacy, of envisioning things, of being able to take a variety of elements and bring them together, synthesize them into something coherent and be able to assess what is reasonable and clear and what is manipulative and false,” she adds.

Papazian says that employers are demanding that job applicants have the background gleaned from a liberal-arts education as well as the skills learned in business education courses.

“These are all qualities that ultimately business needs for success,” she explains. “The beauty now is that employers are now saying it. They are saying, ‘Give us somebody who has a basic solid education and knows how to learn and we can teach them what they need to know for our particular business.’ ”

Papazian says that students need the experience of connecting what they’ve learned to the real world. That’s where SCSU’s internships, service learning and connections with the business community come into play.

“We need to create the bridge for them, but if we educate them vocationally, and very narrowly in a particular skill for a particular business that exists today, it may not exist by the time they graduate,” says Papazian. “It may not exist in five or ten years, and they won’t be able to move over time into positions of leadership within their organizations. We educate both for economic impact and also for democratic impact — and the two, frankly, have to come together.”

SCSU offers BS degrees in business administration with concentrations in accounting, business economics, finance, international business, management, management information systems and marketing; an MBA in business administration; and an accelerated MBA for fall 2014.

 “In some ways, I think it’s somewhat of a false dichotomy in my view,” says Matthew L. O’Connor, dean of the School of Business and Engineering at Quinnipiac University. “At the college level, I’m not sure that there’s a clear breakdown on teaching them only the ‘how’ to do something and not the ‘why’ of what they’re doing. There are people on the liberal arts side of the equation who might say, for example, that engineering is in the training camp. But clearly, you don’t get to be an engineer without going through a liberal arts curriculum as well. All of these are the preparation work for your area of specialization, be it engineering or business. You’ll be utilizing all these skills too. The two go hand in hand.”

“It’s true of business in that you can’t understand the emerging fields of business analytics, finance or accounting without a solid background in mathematics,” says O’Connor, who earned a doctorate in finance from Syracuse University. “You still need the basics of a traditional liberal arts and sciences background to be able to be successful in any kind of business curriculum. Too much time and energy is wasted on the differences between what we call the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ in higher education. Many of the professional fields require strong elements of traditional arts and sciences as either preparation or co-educational activities, depending on how the curriculum is designed.”

O’Conner says that critical thinking, writing and creativity are not exclusive to the traditional arts and sciences canon.

“Students learn a lot about critical thinking,” O’Connor explains. “They improve their creativity in their arts and sciences classes that they take as part of general education. But they also learn it through intensive writing and analytical thinking classes that occur in the business curriculum as well. I don’t see the breakdown of one camp does one thing [teaches why] and the other camp does the other [teaches how]. I think there is much more interplay than it’s given credit for, and that neither side has exclusivity.”

O’Connor says Quinnipiac has a strong internship program that gives students the chance to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom while sampling a career they might be exploring as the one they’ll eventually choose as their own. He adds that employers increasingly use an internship as their first screening for the ultimate hiring process.

“For students, it’s no longer just a good idea to do an internship because you’ll get a feel for the career or you’ll get to decide if this is something that’s right for you and you get to apply some things you learned in the classroom,” O’Connor says. “It’s really more about where your first level of job evaluation is occurring. Depending upon which field they choose, [students] get a chance to see how work life is in that field. If they’re an accounting student, they’re going to see what it’s like to be in an accounting firm. They may go on an audit for accounting or, if they’re in marketing, they may see what it’s like to work in marketing research.

“They’re not only going to experience what the technical job details might be like for them but also what the environment is like for them,” O’Connor adds. “Employers are increasingly using their internship pool to make their entry-level hiring decisions so the candidates that have the best jobs for an entry-level full-time position upon graduation are the candidates that did a good job in their internship with that company.”

“At Albertus, we try to achieve a balance,” explains Nancy Fallon, who chairs the Department of Business Administration & Management at Albertus Magnus College. “I don’t really see it as a dichotomy. I see it as something that is what you need to do to prepare students. We are a strong liberal-arts college and we haven’t watered down our business programs at all. Students take a very integrated gen-ed [general-education] program that we’ve built over the past few years. We’re testing the critical thinking between cases and problem-solving and we’re making strides. It’s not always easy in this world, but I think that we do a very good job at it.”

AMC offers BS degree programs in accounting, business administration, finance, computer information systems, general business and business management, with subsets in international business management, marketing management, human-resources management and health-care management. It also offers an MBA in accounting, leadership, human resources, marketing and project management; an MS in accounting, management and organizational leadership, and human services; and an MA in leadership. Fallon notes that students enrolled in a business degree program also participate in internship programs.

“It’s not the only thing they take part in, but in our internship programs we really try to go out and get the experience so they see what it’s like in the profession in which they’re interested,” says Fallon, who earned a doctorate in organization and management from Capella University. “Right now, we have a big push college-wide on what we call ‘experiential learning.’ For the business department, we’ve always had internships, but now we’re focusing on research that’s based on the practical and on field work, hopefully with mentors taking part. We’re talking about doing a mentorship program for this because we have great relationships with many alumni who want to work with our students, whether on an internship or a project.”

Fallon adds that the business department is developing a speaker series that will feature business professionals who will come and speak to students on various topics including careers.

“We’ve set up business advisory boards for our business students,” Fallon says. “In the past year, we’ve been looking at our curriculum and asking what we should do looking forward to engage students and prepare them for future careers.”

“UNH would be fully aligned with Reich’s comments that we try to blend a traditional liberal-arts education with specific business academic preparation as well as a mixture of professional experience,” says Daniel J. May, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of New Haven. “That is historically part of our school, so I think we’d be firmly in that camp.”

UNH offers a BS in business management including studies in accounting, finance, marketing, economics, quantitative analysis, business law and data management; a BS in accounting, finance or marketing; a BA in economics; and a BS in management of sports industries, a unique area of specialization. Graduate degrees include an MBA in business administration; an Executive MBA (EMBA); an MS in health-care administration, labor relations, taxation or management of sports industries; and an MPA in public administration.

“We have a third of our undergraduate degrees geared toward general education — the ‘why’ part of any degree,” says May, who earned a doctorate in geology from the University of California/Santa Barbara. “About half is geared toward business preparation. And within business preparation, there is also a focus that reemphasizes some of the core skills included in general education like communication and teamwork. A lot of the things that are advocated within a traditional general education program are reinforced within the business program itself.”

May adds that one UNH business program, called Professional Edge, is a four-year course that teaches one how to build general skills and competencies as well as experiencing the working world.

“Professional Edge is designed to reinforce those skills in a specific curriculum,” May explains. “There are elective courses that students can pursue, or internship and externship opportunities. I think that at comprehensive universities, we do a better job than liberal-arts colleges per se in preparing students for the world of work. In accounting and finance, we’re finding that there are tremendous opportunities for jobs in this part of the world.”

Concludes SCSU’s Papazian: “I recently had a conversation with Michael Dell [of Dell Computers] during a conference I attended and I asked him ‘What are you looking for, generally, in a potential employee?’ He said that aside from technical skills, he looks for three things: multi-disciplinary skills, multi-cultural appreciation and communication skills. Is that not the liberal arts?

“You’ll find this with CEOs of major companies because they can teach employees the specifics, but you need to bring the ability to learn beyond that,” Papazian adds. “That’s why we have to get away from talking about pure workforce training as if it doesn’t involve development of the mind and the ability to develop the skills and knowledge that an educated person needs to have in order to succeed.”

 

 Students interact with manufacturers at July session

 

NEW HAVEN — Science teachers from area middle and high schools received hands-on lessons in modern manufacturing techniques at a workshop held at Southern Connecticut State University and a number of local manufacturing companies July 29-31.Thirty STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) educators attended the second annual Materials & Manufacturing Summer Teachers' Institute.

The event included tours of Platt Technical High School in Milford, Leed Himmel Industries in Hamden, New Haven’s Assa Abloy and Chabaso Bakery as well as the Lighting Quotient in West Haven. Co-sponsors included SCSU, Platt the New Haven Manufacturers Association (NHMA), the southern Connecticut chapter of the American Society for Materials, and the Center for Research on Interface Structures and Phenomena (CRISP) at Yale University and SCSU.

Westport Public Schools teacher Kerstin Rao said the workshop will help her do a better job preparing her students to be workers, leaders and innovators.

"I learned that math skills are of utmost importance, as well as the 'soft skills,' which include personal responsibility, clear communication with people, taking initiative to solve problems, and being continually willing to learn," Rao said.

Christine C. Broadbridge, co-director of the Summer Teachers' Institute, said the second annual Institute marked solid progress toward translating the excitement of the teachers into improvements in their curricula.

"The teachers spent more time networking this year," said Broadbridge, who chairs the SCSU physics department at SCSU and is education director at CRISP. "There were more conversations about ways to bring what they learned back to the classroom through new lesson plans."

For instance, she cited a group of teachers who developed a new lesson plan related to the making of bread at Chabaso Bakery.

Robert Klancko, a representative of NHMA and co-director of the Summer Teachers' Institute, was honored with a plaque for his role in the annual program. He noted the addition of a new luncheon format this year that included a ten-minute "Meet the CEO" feature. "Attendees were able to get up close with industry leader," he explained.

The Institute included presentations on materials science, plant tours, hands-on projects, working groups, networking opportunities, student presentations at Platt Tech and a luncheon with keynote speaker James Gildea, plant manager for Bigelow Tea in Fairfield.

 Recoiling from the prospect of groaning student debt and a still-soft job market, more high-schoolers consider a career in the skilled trades

 

There’s never been a better time to be working with your hands. Really.

Chances are if you’ve needed to hire a handyman over the last few years — be it a plumber, electrician or HVAC person — you may have been having a harder time than ever before pinning one down.  The good news is: It’s not just you. The bad news is: It’s not just you.

The United States faces a growing shortage of skilled trades workers — the product of an aging labor force nearing or reaching retirement age and not enough new workers coming in to take their places (a problem manufacturers are already struggling to deal with for the same reasons).

According to 2013 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Quarterly Workforce Indicators, 73.5 percent of skilled tradespeople nationwide are over the age of 45, with 20.6 percent over age 55. The Northeast is facing the biggest shortages, and unfortunately Connecticut is the worst off: 91 percent of our tradesmen and -women are age 45 and up, with 27.3 percent over age 55.

This all coincidentally aligns with the greater emphasis over the latter half of the last decade on sending teens to college to ensure they’ll get ahead. Pair that with the less-than-glamorous perception of working in a dark factory or unclogging toilets, and a trade job is likely not even an option to the average 18-year-old plotting a career.

“It’s not necessarily known as an occupation that parents are encouraging their children to get into; everyone wants their children to go to college,” says Judy Resnick, executive director of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association’s (CBIA) Education Foundation.

“Many outside resources overlook the potential value in skilled training programs and steer students toward four-year schools in a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t really fit everyone. Not everyone can succeed in a traditional school environment,” says Nicole Givens, director of admissions at Lincoln Technical Institute/Lincoln Culinary Institute in Shelton. “[Some students] want to work with their hands and work on cars — install high-voltage systems, build computer networks. They won’t find their path at a traditional college.”

The Connecticut Technical High School system currently has some 11,000 full-time and 5,500 part-time students at 20 schools statewide. Ray Mencio, education consultant for Platt Technical High School in Milford, says finding qualified students is always a challenge, with about one out of every four applicants getting into the school.

“If we had five more schools we’d be even better off,” Mencio says. “In everything from construction to manufacturing, there’s such a great need for people that if we graduated everyone we probably still wouldn’t have enough” to meet demand.

The recession that began in 2008 played an unwelcome role in this state of affairs. When residential and commercial construction slowed to a halt, it not only meant current workers were out of the job, but it also put the brakes on training new apprentices.

“People didn’t have work and weren’t [taking] on new apprentices, and when you have four to five years without training new people, you’re behind the ball,” explains Mencio. “And with the baby boomers turning 65 years old, that’s a double-whammy. We’ll feel this for ten to 12 more years.”

Resnick concurs that time is of the essence, but turning out a new general of workers in the trades won’t happen quickly, which is especially bad news as construction recovers, albeit slowly.

“You can’t just turn it on and someone comes out a plumber in six months,” Resnick notes. “There is going to be a huge gap between the demand and how fast the pipeline can turn out workers. As things improve, we’re all of a sudden going to say, ‘Oh my God, we don’t have anybody.’”

Mencio says Platt is considering adding more programs after 2:30 p.m. on class days to accommodate more students. But finding more experienced instructors poses its own challenge, as many are in great demand and too busy working as contractors. It makes sense then that the companies who contact him looking for apprentices aren’t looking for just one; they want six at a time.

Himself an experience electrician, Mencio envisions the baby boomers being incentivized to keep working.

“They’ll throw any kind of money at these people who would otherwise be looking to retire, and then passing that on to the consumer,” he says. “I’m going to be 64, and I know already [potential clients are] going to do anything they can to keep me going to 70.”

The key is outreach and encouraging potential students that the trades can be a pathway to a rewarding and lucrative career. That means setting the record straight with parents and schools.

“We have to get to parents; how they view careers is translated to their children,” Resnick says. “What’s more difficult is talking to guidance counselors. In schools where guidance counselors can guide career decisions, it’s important for them to know how these careers have changed, how modern they are, and how high-tech and well-paid they are.

“A plumber with a high school education can make up to $50,000 in their first year,” she says. “If you want a job after graduating a technical high school, you have a job. Think about your car: It’s not a grease-monkey job any more; it’s a computer job now.”

Even as Connecticut struggles to attract new workers to the trades, it trade workers’ average wages — at $21.47 per hour — are above the national average of $20.25.

CBIA currently offers a Connecticut Clean Trades program, which completed a pilot program during the 2013-14 academic year at five technical high schools. The program offers students in HVAC, plumbing, carpentry and electrical programs hands-on energy and sustainability projects to understand how the trades fit in to the emerging green energy market. It also offers other educational programs and training grants for small businesses.

The United Association Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 777 union offers apprenticeship programs that run six weeks per year for five years giving apprentices on-the-job training allowing them to earn wages while learning the trade.

Business manager Michael Rosario and head of apprentice training programs Frank DeCato say enrollment in their programs is strong. To date this year they’ve accepted 36 apprentices out of 336 applicants (411 applied in 2013). They give special consideration to returning war veterans and minorities.

But they admit that a perception issue certainly hangs over the plumbing trade.

“The first that that people think about plumbers is fixing toilets. It’s not a glamorous trade, but that’s not really the whole trade,” DeCato says. “People don’t think of the hospital operating rooms with medical gas lines, [or] wastewater treatment and sewage centers. Electricians have less a problem than we do.”

Rosario adds that the pool of applicants has been of high caliber as well.

“We’ve had kids apply from Notre Dame High School with very high grades,” he says. “The thought with their parents is that it’s going to cost $100,000 for a four-year college, and they’ll be thousands of dollars in debt. But they can come with us and do a five-year apprenticeship that won’t cost them anything, and they’ll earn while they learn.”

The old idea of union workers doesn’t apply to them, either; they want and need the cream of the crop.

“The unions have the image of one guy working and five guys just standing around. That’s not what we’re about. If a person’s not producing, you’re not going to hold on to them, and the union won’t, either. It’s our reputation that’s out there,” DeCato adds. “And we’re big on math and science; if you can’t do math you can’t do the trade.”

Rosario likewise agrees that early awareness is key not only to changing perception but putting a trade like plumbing onto students’ radars as an attractive career option. Local 777 does career days at high schools in the state to spread the word.

“Maybe all the trades should take a step further and introduce more programs even to the middle-schoolers,” he says. “Obviously college isn’t for everyone, and not everyone can afford it.”

“What would be helpful is a consistent, educational and informative campaign broadcast not only to students, but also to parents, guidance counselors, teachers – everyone who has an influence on today’s students detailing the specific benefits of career training,” Givens adds.

Skilled Lincoln Tech trade graduates are typically well-placed. Roughly 70 percent of graduates of the electrical program in Shelton are placed in jobs in their field (between 76 and 66 percent of graduates in the day and night programs actually graduate; 40 students in spring 2013).

 Many of the same issues faced by the skilled trades almost perfectly echo those faced by manufacturers in recent years. Though, as Resnick notes, “Manufacturing has had a head start,” with government incentives and programs having been started in recent years to boost worker training and hiring at manufacturing firms statewide.

A prime example is the establishment of Advanced Manufacturing Centers (AMCs) at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury and Quinebaug Community College in Danielson in 2012 (the first was opened at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield in 1998), offering certificate programs in machine technology.

Manufacturing has long been plagued by the perception of “three Ds” — dark, dirty and dangerous — that fill young people’s and their parents’ minds with visions of working in a dank and dangerous factory. The AMCs themselves demonstrate a modern shop floor: clean, open, safe and high-tech.

“It’s not a dirty, grungy sweatshop anymore — it’s essentially lab coat, because you’re programming machines,” says Mike Gugger, program director at Housatonic’s AMC, which operates as a real-life factory floor. The program has a capacity for 50 students at a time (though the first class had 56), and those who are admitted must successfully be evaluated for their math and measurement skills beforehand.

“It’s a challenging program,” says Guggers. “So many trades get a bad rap because of the idea that you’re not smart enough or you couldn’t succeed in college. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This requires genius on both sides. You need the ability to analyze and conceptualize — to be able to size within the width of a single hair.”

There’s a similar demand for manufacturing workers, especially those skilled in new technologies, to replace the existing, and aging, workforce. Gugger says it’s probable that every graduate from the AMC will be placed in a job before the summer is over — even those who aren’t will likely go on to further education in pursuit of associate’s or engineering degrees.

“The demand is there, the jobs are there,” Guggers says. “We need this industry because it’s the backbone of our economy, and if we don’t support it, it will leave again.”

James Troup, provost of Naugatuck Valley Community College, says his school’s AMC had similar attendance and will in fact be adding nighttime cohorts to accommodate more students. The center gets feedback from area manufacturers to tailor its lessons to the needs of the companies.

“There continue to be lots of job openings for the right people — good, well-paying jobs and that will not change as more people are retiring,” Troup explains. “There is tremendous optimism in Connecticut about industries like aerospace, which could really go through the roof.”

Both AMCs expect to offer part-time courses for incumbent worker training in the near future, but in the meantime market themselves to high-schoolers and the community to remind them that manufacturing is a viable option.

The demand for skilled workers will especially increase, many project, not only as construction recovers over the next few years, but as standards start to lean more toward energy-efficient technologies and practices — not only in new construction but in the retrofitting of existing buildings. 

“There’s an increased focus on sustainability and energy-efficiency,” Resnick says. “Connecticut has some of the highest energy costs in the country, so there’s a particular push here that exacerbates the need. If you want solar you need a plumber; you need an electrician. And the software is sophisticated and needs to be built with tradespeople.”

“The building codes are changing to where you’ll need ten percent renewable-energy sources. When that explodes in the next five years it’s going to be massive in terms of educating people and putting them out in the workforce,” Mencio adds.

In the meantime, those now lucky enough to pursue a career in the skilled trades will likely prosper as those saddled with groaning debt from a traditional college education face a still-lagging job market.

“If there was anything that really needs to be done, it’s getting the public’s perception of what the trades are about and have them understand that their children don’t need to go to college in order to make a decent living,” DeCato says. “We’re not going to become billionaires, but you’ll make a living, provide for a family and retire comfortably.”