Bridging the Labor Gap

Initiative helped job seekers learn trade-oriented skills for in-demand fields

By Tristan Scott
Flathead Valley Community College graduates outside the Flathead County Fairgrounds. Beacon File Photo

An impending labor shortage is forecast to sweep the nation as baby boomers retire in droves without a stable of skilled young workers to fill the gap — a potential crisis that will continue to exacerbate Montana’s workforce woes unless a solution to stem the shortfall is in place.

At less than 4 percent, Montana’s unemployment rate is a positive economic marker in most regards. But across the state, employers’ demand for suitably skilled workers to fill the glut of available positions is hampered by a familiar issue that is increasingly marring the economic development landscape — a widening skills gap.

It’s an issue that demands immediate attention, according to Matt Springer, director of the state’s workforce project RevUp Montana, which upon its completion last year helped serve more than 5,000 Montana students — a full 15 percent of the state’s two-year undergraduates who received training for good-paying jobs.

“This was the largest workforce development initiative ever undertaken in Montana,” Springer said of the program, a coalition of 15 state and tribal colleges, including Flathead Valley Community College. “It focused on systemic reform and institutional improvements to the model of two-year education. We need to be able to effectively and efficiently train our students as we face this monumental shift in our workforce demographics.”

Supported by a $25 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, RevUp emphasized placing students into short-term degree, certificate and apprenticeship programs that can quickly lead to high-wage, high-demand jobs. It also opened up new lines of collaboration between the Montana Department of Labor and Industry and the Montana University System in order to identify in-demand jobs and construct training programs to fill them.

The end goal, Springer said, was to “better align employer needs and the skills being developed by college programs while simultaneously increasing the return-on-investment for students.”

According to the Montana Department of Labor, the state is expecting a worker shortage of at least 24,000 people in the next decade, making it critical that workers are filling financially productive positions in order to the mitigate economic damage.

Key to bridging the gap between an aging workforce and a cohort of credentialed new employees is helping students gain access to occupational training in the fields most critical to the state’s economy, Springer said, including health care, advanced manufacturing, truck driving and energy.

A summary report of the RevUp project found positive returns to attending a two-year college in Montana, with projected wage increases over the first decade after graduation exceeding the total costs associated with attending. While the average cost of completing a certificate is lower, the study found the returns from a credential are also lower.

Attending some college but not completing a degree is associated with the lowest returns, with the total cost of attendance significantly outweighing projected wage increases.

That needs to change, Springer said.

RevUp is designed to provide incentives for students to quickly earn certificates and degrees tailored to today’s job market without sinking them into debt. It’s aimed specifically at students who can’t afford to spend two or three years on education, Springer said, but can afford to learn a trade-oriented skill in six months, so long as it leads to gainful employment.

It’s a model designed to serve a changing student population and a workforce in flux.

“Our current postsecondary education system is not designed to effectively and efficiently train people to perform a specific skill at a high level,” Springer said. “The assumption has been that the student population has been the same all this time, but the reality is that the student population is drastically different. We have many older students, many of them with families, with jobs and with significant economic barriers that get in the way of a traditional education.”

RevUp also launched a coaching program that paired “workforce navigators” with students at community colleges across the state, helping them pursue a job-specific skill and complete their degree or certificate.

Students in a wide variety of fields were paired with professional success coaches who help them clarify long-term goals, map out a success plan and stay on track for graduation, a strategy that significantly improved retention, Springer said.

For more information and to read the report, visit revupmontana.com.

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