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Addressing the 'skills gap' for business and industry remains one of the challenges.

With soaring job growth and an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent — Oregon's lowest since 1976 — our state mirrors the country's ongoing, robust economic expansion.Mark Mitsui

Such momentum creates a wealth of opportunities, as well as challenges: like a skills gap for business and industry in search of a trained, educated and diverse workforce to fill open positions at their companies and organizations. Their need presents a "sweet spot" for Oregon's community colleges, partly because of the diversity of our students and also because of our expertise with Career Technical Education, or CTE, and our ability to produce that talent — if we have the funding and employer partnerships necessary.

CTE is a proven method to maintain economic success by meeting workforce needs and giving students the skills required to succeed professionally. It's also the focus of research — specifically, by Georgetown University, which took a look at CTE in Oregon (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Certificates in Oregon: A Model for Workers to Jump-Start or Reboot Careers, 2018).

Researchers found that the number of certificates awarded by our community colleges has more than tripled since 2007, with most growth tagged to short-term certificates. Certificate holders younger than 29 were found to experience significant wage increases. They tended to be Pell Grant recipients, with less work experience and lower earnings.

The study also determined that certificates typically increase earnings by 19 percent, or $5,000; that disciplines like business and health offer the best wage premiums; and that certificates serve as a crucial bridge for career transitions.

Short-term certificate programs are suited to adult students, particularly if they result in "stackable" credentials - meaning that credits earned at one level apply to the next level of training. The average Portland Community College student is 28 years old and works while attending school. Certificate programs are well suited to their busy lives and also reflect the increasing pace of "upskilling" needed in the workplace given rapid technological change occurring in today's jobs.

In my work at PCC, I talk with or meet employers daily, from a variety of high growth CTE fields — welding, health information management, software development, manufacturing and industrial technology, to name a few — who are desperate for educated, skilled workers. Their companies boast middle skill jobs that pay well, offer potential for career advancement, and are automation- and recession-resistant.

And their problem is that locally, they can't find enough of the talent they need with the necessary training. So, they import that talent to bridge the gap.

Oregon's 17 community colleges are united in tackling this dilemma. Together, we've submitted a state-funding proposal that, if backed, will significantly increase the number of skilled graduates from CTE programs across the state, ready to enter high wage occupations. In essence, the skills gap Oregon is experiencing will be bridged; business and industry will have access to the educated labor they need — locally.

An added benefit is that such support will simultaneously increase completion rates among first-generation, low-income, highly diverse cohorts of students — leading to an increase in the diversity of the workforce.

Funding is half the battle, though. Employer partnerships are crucial to solving the skills gap and building on the economic success we're experiencing. The creation of work-based learning opportunities like apprenticeships, internships and co-operative education agreements are ways to do this. They braid CTE training with employer input so that curriculum, training practices and job skills meet industry demands.

PCC has developed a first-of-its-kind registered apprenticeship with Madden Industrial Craftsmen. Madden will serve as the country's first staffing firm to offer a registered apprenticeship training program, with PCC's oversight. At the end of the program, employees will receive apprenticeship and academic credentials recognized across the country.

Another example is PCC's role as the training center partner in the Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center project in Scappoose, geared toward the development of advanced manufacturing talent. The goal is to closely align applied research and development led by industry and university partners with PCC's hands-on "earn and learn" apprenticeship training.

Our community is at a critical point — and one that inspires us to meet workforce needs by bridging the skills gap, and to offer students access to greater opportunity. By way of increased state funding and industry partnerships, CTE can successfully address such challenges head-on.

Mark Mitsui is president of Portland Community College. This column appeared in The Times newspaper in October.

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