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Tech schools chief wants more residents to pursue higher-level skills

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Labor economists predict that in five years nearly half the jobs in West Virginia will require education and training beyond high school, but a state education official said a high school diploma today is already not enough to fill high-skilled jobs.

Jim Skidmore, chancellor of the state Council for Community and Technical College Education, said higher-paying jobs require higher skill levels, which demand an education after high school.

"For students to move into higher-paid jobs, it's imperative that they have an education beyond high school," Skidmore said. "Those students who have graduated high school in the past with no intentions of going on to college ... are going to have to be better prepared for going to college now. There's going to have to be a change in attitude and maybe a change in our culture."

Instead of thinking about graduating high school and getting a job soon after, Skidmore said state residents should consider acquiring additional training to earn a better job.

"That's going to be a realization for a lot of students," he said.

Out of every 100 students enrolled in the ninth grade in West Virginia, only 17 will earn a two- or four-year college degree within 10 years, according to a report by the state Council for Community and Technical College Education and the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

Sixty percent of students who do start college in the state never finish, the report stated.

A changing labor market has made an education more valuable today than it has been in the recent past, the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy said in its monthly "Jobs Count" report.

Because of technology, jobs that our fathers and grandfathers had 20 years ago now require a level of skill that mandates some credentials beyond high school, Skidmore said.

Bridgemont Community and Technical College President Jo Harris said a skills gap between graduating students and retiring Baby Boomers is a concern.

Much of the skills gap is going to be concentrated in "middle skill" jobs, skilled technical jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree, according to the report.

These jobs include advanced manufacturing, construction, energy, biotechnology and nanotechnology, cyber-security, information technology, telecommunications and public safety.

Fifty-four percent of West Virginia's jobs fall into this category, but only 45 percent of the state's workers are trained in these areas, according to the report.

"The skill level has changed and is so much higher you need post-secondary education in order to be a productive employee in the modern-day manufacturing plant," Harris said. "We're hearing from employers that there are these skill gaps. We want to create a pathway with career tech centers to get those interested in tech jobs to start that pathway in high school and come on to the community college and get the advanced skills that our employers request."

There are definitely jobs out there, Harris said. Community and technical schools need to work with employers to fill those jobs, she said.

Bridgemont, for example, partnered with Toyota to offer the Toyota Advanced Manufacturing Technician Program. Bridgemont students take classes two days a week while they earn a wage working at the Toyota Buffalo plant three days a week.

Students earn $40,000 in five semesters, Harris said.

"The reason Toyota is willing to do this ... is because they are so concerned with the Baby Boomers retiring, they're willing to work with tech colleges to get the people they want to replace those retiring individuals," Harris said. "The demand is there, we need to produce graduates to fill the job in industries that this growth comes from."

That growth Harris referred to is a reference to the 900 nonfarm jobs added in the state in December, which ended 10 straight months of job loss, according to the Jobs Count report.

The state's manufacturing sector saw a small rebound, adding 700 jobs. Construction also reversed recent trends by adding 400 jobs. The government, education and health services sectors each added 400 jobs, according to the report.

The biggest loss occurred in the trade, transportation and utilities sector, which lost 800 jobs.

Skidmore said industries in the state that need skilled workers include health care -- such as nurses, nursing home workers and respiratory therapists especially, and manufacturing jobs such as highly-skilled technicians, chemical operators, and a number of jobs in the oil and gas industry.

"The bar is rising as far as the qualifications for jobs," Skidmore said. "Skill levels are at a point where it's going to require post-secondary education to get the skills necessary for those jobs."

Harris said some employers, like Jacobs Engineering, are worried.

The Elkview company invited Bridgemont students to its plant to learn about the jobs it offers and how much it pays, she said.

"They are concerned and know [Bridgemont] is the place to look for these types of graduates. The partnerships that we're developing are beneficial to our citizens and our college and to the employer," Harris said.

Now it's up to the students to attend a community or technical college to get the necessary skills, she said.

"The more we can tell the public about the technical job opportunities, the more interest there will be in getting the skills for those jobs," Harris said.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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