Technical fields are a growing part of the modern economy, and it’s not just high-level engineers and scientists who are benefiting from the opportunities. Well-paying jobs also are available in fields that require specialized training but not a four-year college degree.
These positions include welders, machinists, registered nurses, auto mechanics and computer systems analysts.
A recent World-Herald news article by Barbara Soderlin noted that more than 40,000 current jobs in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area are in such fields.
Such technical workers now earn an average of $48,913, compared with $31,166 for their similarly educated peers in other fields, Soderlin reported.
The Midlands is making progress in helping young people understand the opportunities in these fields. As Soderlin reported, this issue is a major focus for Metropolitan Community College as well as AIM, an Omaha organization that promotes technology education and careers.
On a statewide level, the campaign known as Dream It, Do It is doing important work to connect public schools and community colleges with the needs of Nebraska manufacturing businesses. In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad has worked with business leaders to launch the Skilled Iowa training initiative, aimed at helping workers fill high-skill jobs.
What are some of the key ingredients for making major progress on this issue? Two Nebraskans with extensive experience on the issue, Deborah Brennan and Robin Dexter, offer answers.
Brennan is executive vice president of Central Community College, which has campuses in three Nebraska cities with a significant manufacturing presence: Columbus, Grand Island and Hastings.
Dexter is associate superintendent for student services with the Grand Island Public Schools. In August, the first set of students from Grand Island-area school districts will begin study at the new Career Pathways Institute, an ambitious collaborative effort to give high school students state-of-the-art technical training.
Here are some of the key points they highlighted:
>> Early outreach to students, parents. “You really need to start career exploration and awareness at an early age,” in middle school or even sixth grade, Dexter says. Focus group sessions with students showed that they weren’t aware of the opportunities.
It’s “hugely important” for outreach to connect with parents, says Brennan. Parents need to understand that “manufacturing is a different world than it used to be,” she says. The manufacturing world these days is marked by workspaces that are high-tech and rigorously clean, a far cry from the old stereotype of unsightly, disheveled shopfloors.
Central Community College uses an array of demonstration tools to help inform students, from a traveling display of high-tech mechanical devices to a State Fair display of a 3-D printer.
It’s important for students to understand, Dexter says, that training programs can get them career-ready right out of high school, if that is their goal.
>> Strong communication and collaborative partnerships with businesses and other organizations. The Career Pathways Institute in Grand Island has benefited greatly from the “very clear vision of what our business partners wanted,” Dexter says. All of Nebraska’s community colleges, Brennan says, have advisory boards whose members keep the colleges up to date on companies’ latest training needs.
>> The need for math skills. “Almost any student coming into these programs needs to have a knowledge of math and a comfort level with math,” Brennan says. Central Community College makes a strong effort to have its math instruction fit with real-world applications in the workplace. This involves an understanding of algebra, geometry and, to an extent, trigonometry, she says.
Effective outreach to students can help them understand early how studying algebra, for example, is important preparation for well-paying careers.
>> More than technical training. Another sign of the changing manufacturing sector, Brennan says, is the need for workers to have skills in addition to technical training.
Students pursuing technical fields at Central Community College, for example, need to complete a general course curriculum that includes these components: Effective communication. Analytical ability and problem-solving. Life and career skills (getting to work on time, for example). Information and technology awareness. Global awareness.
Students pursuing studies in drafting, Brennan says, now need to have a solid understanding of how devices are developed and manufactured, and the students also need to know how to work in teams.
The Nebraska and Iowa educators and business people who are spreading the word about these job opportunities deserve applause and support. Their efforts will make a huge difference in the lives of our young people and the future of our region.