Guest column/Let’s lift up students and help businesses

During the past decade, Eastern Ohio has been transformed by the energy industry in ways few of us could have predicted. Land too remote for development or unusable for agriculture now produces regular income for its owners. Shuttered industrial sites have been reborn as facilities for energy companies. Housing availability has tightened, and values have increased. Businesses large and small are growing due to new economic activity.

And everywhere there is talk of job-openings, the workers needed to fill them and the skills required to succeed. Closing the gap between the jobs that exist and the workers qualified to fill them is the goal of this year’s In-Demand Jobs Week, which runs Monday through Friday.

Since 2010, job growth has helped reduce unemployment rates in Eastern Ohio. From highs in some communities of more than 17 percent, joblessness has been cut in half to a third. While unemployment is still higher here than in other regions, the energy industry has contributed greatly to reversing the trend and getting it headed in the right direction. Yet the persistent problem remains: Businesses need more skilled workers than they can find.

If it were just about getting more people into training, there would be no problem. At the institution where I serve as a trustee, Belmont College, our programs provide the skills employers want, and we have the capacity to teach more students.

The same is true for other nearby institutions. Unfortunately, for many students, it is more complicated than that.

In many cases, those most motivated to fill in-demand jobs face the highest barriers to getting hired. For single parents, veterans, experienced workers seeking a career change, lower-income students and others, the realities of cost and schedules can place training just out of reach. If we want to maintain the economic growth we have seen, we need to come together and systematically tear down the barriers between these job seekers and the training they need so they can get the good-paying jobs they want.

The first barrier is the financial one.

People working full-time, or who have family obligations, need additional support in order to devote time and energy to training. PELL Grants cover most community college tuitions, but textbooks, transportation, child care, housing and basic living expenses still remain and can be insurmountable barriers for many. When these needs are met, however, research has shown that community college graduation rates almost triple. Expanding Ohio’s higher education grant programs to cover more of these expenses could bring similar success.

Closer partnerships between businesses and higher education help to close the jobs-skills gap as well. When degree and credential programs align with the skills employers need to be competitive, students win because they can move seamlessly from training into good-paying jobs. In fact, many community college students work in low-paying jobs unrelated to their studies. That should change. Apprentice programs, in which students work in their career fields while enrolled in degree or credential programs, provide them with income, enhance their education and help them network with future employers. Greater state support for these “learn-to-earn” models can help increase graduation rates while more quickly addressing the needs of students and employers.

That these apprentice programs repeatedly have been proven successful at community colleges is no surprise. Community colleges such as Belmont College are on the frontlines of the work to fill in-demand jobs and have responded to the need by redoubling efforts.

Statewide, the number of degrees and long-term certificates awarded has grown by 8.5 percent, and the number of credentials awarded has grown by 22 percent-all while student populations have reduced during a strong economy. Stronger state support can multiply this success so more students and businesses can benefit.

As we turn attention to the in-demand jobs that are open and waiting to be filled — many of them in the energy industry right in our own backyard — our state leaders can be powerful partners by advancing policies that lift up the students who want to learn and the businesses who want to hire them. Financial, program and system barriers can and should be removed, and Ohio’s current state budget process is the time to do it.

(Gates is chairperson of the Belmont College board of trustees as well as chairperson of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.)

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