This article was published in #jcmo Inside Business. Read the full April 2017 edition here.
Economic development leaders say Missouri needs more skilled workers helping manufacture goods within the state's borders.
The Linn-based State Technical College of Missouri is playing a major role in educating those workers.
"Around the country, there is what is known as a 'skills gap,' and all over Missouri, we're no different," Dan Mehan, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry president and CEO said in a recent interview.
"When I talk about the skills gap, I hear all around the state, from employers of every sector, that they have the job opportunities — they just have a tough time finding (people with) the skill sets to match."
For most of history, a high school education was considered a luxury.
In the 20th century, a college education became more important for more people.
And, for most of the last three decades, officials have been saying students need some formal education beyond high school — and that message generally has been focused on getting a degree from a four-year college or university course of study.
Mehan said a recent survey of more than 1,000 CEOs, conducted for the state Chamber of Commerce by the Gallup organization, found "only 15 percent believe that high school kids are ready, when they get out of high school, to join the workforce. That only goes up to 42 percent when kids get out of college.
"So there needs to be a better honing of skill sets, and — if you look in particular in the construction area or manufacturing area, they definitely need some further preparation."
That's where technical colleges like State Tech come in.
"An institution like State Tech is absolutely critical to us matching up those needs and demands in the workforce with the actual product of the system — future Missouri workers," Mehan said.
After visiting the State Tech campus April 7, Gov. Eric Greitens said: "This is exactly what we need in the state of Missouri to build a thriving, prosperous economy. Graduates from here are emerging with high quality jobs, (and) 97 percent of their graduates are able to go straight into the workforce."
On its website, the school identifies itself as "Missouri's Premier Technical College" and notes State Tech has been rated in the "top 10 percent of two-year colleges in the nation."
The school boasts a "12-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio."
Shawn Strong is finishing his first year as president of the state's only public college devoted to technical education.
"We are very, very good at producing highly skilled graduates to go to work in the workplace," he said. "The keys to our success are several: We recruit a kind of student — they know what they want to do, they come here for a specific program and, once they are here, we immerse them in that chosen vocation.
"Another part of it is our relations with industry. We have hundreds of companies that serve on our advisory boards, and we have deep relationships with companies — those companies call us the 'employers' choice,' and there's a reason for that.
"You know what you're going to get if you hire a State Tech graduate — you're going to get the best."
Strong acknowledged his viewpoint might be "a little bit biased."
But, before coming to State Tech, he was dean of Business Technology and Communication at Minnesota's Bemidji State University/Northwest Technical College, a regional comprehensive, master's degree institution with about 6,500 students.
Before Minnesota, Strong's professional experience included 14 years with Missouri State University in Springfield, including nine years as head of the Technology and Construction Management Department.
He also was a graduate assistant at Iowa State University, Ames — and he's worked in business and industry, including as a maintenance technician for Packerland Packing, Hospers, Iowa, and as a maintenance manager at Heritage Industries, Wayne, Nebraska.
Those other jobs provide a perspective on the role of technical education and State Tech's position.
"We talk about workforce development, of having a skilled workforce," Strong explained. "And we hear about apprenticeships and partnerships — we talk about how we have to have better partnerships with companies and industry.
"We've been doing that (at State Tech) for decades."
He noted a new trend nationally, emphasizing partnerships between schools and industry.
"We've been doing it forever," Strong said. "We have partnership programs where students work for eight weeks and they come to class for eight weeks."
The website reports State Tech has 350 industry partners.
Strong followed Don Claycomb, who retired last summer after 23 years heading the school.
State Technical College of Missouri began in 1961 as part of the Linn Public School District, when then-Superintendent Thurman Willett envisioned using newly available federal funds to teach vocational-technical skills to adults — those who had completed high school — rather than following another developing trend that emphasized technical education for high school students.
For years, the school was called "Linn Tech" — until it became a state-owned school on July 1, 1996, and the name was changed to "Linn State Technical College.
Most people just called it "Linn State" — and many still do, which is a habit State Tech administrators are working hard to change.
The current name became effective July 1, 2014, to better reflect the school's statewide mandate when it became a state-owned institution in 1996.
"We now have a footprint across the state of Missouri," Claycomb said nearly three years ago. "(In 2013), for example, we had 91 percent of the counties represented in enrollment. We typically will have 80 percent or more of the counties."
But Strong said this month — and Claycomb said when he retired last year — one thing hasn't changed.
"I think the fundamentals are exactly the same — specialized technical education and getting kids jobs," Strong explained. "We say, 'Life of learning and profitable employment.' That's what we're all about (today) and that's what we were about 20, 30 years ago."
Mehan said: "The simple facts are that 25 percent of the jobs out there today, and into the future, are going to require a four-year degree. But the two-year programs and the skill development applies to a much larger swath of opportunities out there — at much less the cost and much less the possibility or prospect of going into debt with a student loan."
He added: "The jobs that are out there today versus 25 years ago are much more technologically driven. What we seem to have been slow to catch up to are the technological skill sets that are required."
Missouri's education commissioner, Margie Vandeven, told the News Tribune: "Today, what we're really emphasizing at the department of Elementary and Secondary Education is the numeracy skills, the literacy skills, that are necessary for a first-year, four-year college — you (also) need those skills if you're going into welding.
"So we prepare kids to be prepared for whatever it is that they'd like to go into — whether it be into workforce development, whether it be into a two-year college or whether it be a four-year college."
Mehan said that emphasis should help.
"The traditional learning needs to evolve into more application-based learning and more experiential learning," he said, noting today's employers, in order "to be competitive," need to have the "next generation workforce be ramped up and a contributing part of the workforce quicker than what we're used to."
State Tech and many of the state's two-year community colleges do that, he said.
So do for-profit technical schools, Strong acknowledged.
But while State Tech may be more expensive than other two-year schools, when compared with the private technical colleges, "those schools tend to be very expensive, unlike State Tech, which is still very reasonable," Strong said. "We're still about half the price of the privates."
He added: "I think we are better."
Mehan said: "We should be extremely appreciative of the fact that we have an institution like State Tech providing such a vital service, a vital role, in filling that gap that we see as needed throughout the state."
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