Business, education to address tech skills

In the 1950s, 50 percent of the jobs in the United States didn't require advanced skills. A strong back would often suffice.

Today, that figure has dropped to less than 15 percent.

The average age of the manufacturing work force in the nation is approaching 50.

Do those numbers get your attention?

They did for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, which is why next month it's hosting an event it has dubbed "Call to Action."

About 120 business and education leaders will come together Oct. 30-31 to work toward addressing the technical skills that employers need and workers must have for today's job market.

"We can no longer afford just to send every kid to college to discover themselves and expect them to come out in the end prepared for today's job market," said Bill Hagerman, the director of innovation and improvement for the state's Department of Education.

Leaders of the workshop aren't looking for more talk. They want those attending to leave ready for action.

"At the end of the day each stakeholder group will have a to-do list," said Steve Wyckoff, who heads up an educational service center and is one of the workshop organizers. "We're really going to push for things to do."

For example, a to-do he wants businesses to take on is to spread the word to parents that a four-year college degree "isn't the only path to success."

"Schools aren't going to change until parents say we need to change," Wyckoff said.

Apparently someone is listening, because the number of credit hours being taken at the Wichita Area Technical College has more than doubled since December, increasing from about 11,000 to 22,500 as of last week, said Helen Thomas, the school's marketing director.

"Somehow people have the impression that technical education is for dummies," she said, "and that is absolutely not the case."

She noted that WATC's curriculum for aviation mechanics is loaded with physics and math.

Chamber vice president Jim Schwarzenberger said the demographics and the technological changes in the job market have driven the need for the workshop.

"Most jobs now require some skill," he said, "and most generally it's a technical skill.

"This is a great opportunity for the business community to be involved in the arena of education, and for the education side to reach out to businesses."

A key component of the workshop will be the Kansas Career Pipeline, a nonprofit organization that is funded by federal and state taxes and businesses.

The Pipeline has a Web site (careerpipeline.org) that helps people link their interests and skills with job needs, build an educational path and connect with Kansas employers.

"Often a two-year degree is an excellent entry point for a job," Career Pipeline executive director Andy Solter said. "You can become an engineer by starting with a two-year college, then go to a Cessna or Spirit (AeroSystems) and they'll pay for the rest of your education."

Technical training doesn't mean lack of education, Hagerman said.

"We're not trying to say in any way, shape or form that education isn't important," he said. "The issue is what's the right education for what you want to do. That's the piece we've lost our way on.

"The technical education we're talking about isn't your old tech vocation, industrial arts or shop class. Some of the high-skill, high-demand technical areas will pay better than those with a four-year college degree."