December 1, 2011

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Industry and Higher Ed Partner to Resolve the Talent Deficit

Gaylen Webb

December 1, 2011

Utah’s unemployment rate is frozen above 7 percent, with approximately 100,000 residents out of work, and yet some Utah businesses can’t find enough skilled workers to meet their hiring needs.

“We have had open job requisitions for internet marketers for years,” says Jerry Ropelato, CEO of Ogden-based TechMediaNetworks. “It has been one of the most pressing challenges in growing our company.” TechMediaNetworks has struggled to find local workers skilled in search engine optimization, search engine marketing and social media optimization.

Meanwhile, at L-3 Communication Systems West recruiters were struggling to find skilled workers to fill approximately 90 open positions. “We could no longer find qualified assemblers, inspectors and testers, because they just weren’t there,” says Stephen Eiting, vice president of operations at L-3.

To resolve the talent deficit and train the needed workforce, TechMediaNetworks, L-3 and many other enterprises are increasingly forming partnerships with the state’s educational institutions. For example, TechMediaNetworks partnered with Ogden City and Weber State University to create and teach a specialized, 10-week, hands-on internet marketing course for the company’s employees, Weber State students and a few others.

“We flew in numerous guest speakers from New York to help with certain aspects of the class,” says Ropelato. “We had about 50 in the class and it was taught at the Ogden Chamber of Commerce.”

At L-3, Eiting, along with Chris Colosimo, change management specialist in organizational development, and Susan Davis, manager of process initiatives, set out to build a “University of Manufacturing” complete with a “College of Assembly,” a “College of Test” and a “College of Inspection,” but L-3 lacked the facilities and staff to take on such an extensive endeavor.

Consequently, Colosimo and Davis approached Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) with the idea. In the ensuing partnership, L-3 provided the curriculum support and requirements, training expertise, and equipment, while SLCC developed the curriculum, provided the training facilities and the instructors necessary to create the University of Manufacturing.

Karen Gunn, dean of the School of Professional and Economic Development and the School of Applied Technology at SLCC, says the college was able to tailor an existing electronics technician certification program to quickly meet L-3’s training needs. “We had them up and running in 90 days,” she says.

The eight-week training program has thus far focused on assemblers and test personnel, but Eiting says the long-term plan is to create more advanced training in those disciplines and to add other disciplines as L-3 transitions more and more of its training to SLCC.

“This has been a real cooperative effort that has paid off for us and also helps Salt Lake Community College,” he says. “We anticipate that eventually other companies will be able to utilize the programs as well.”

Demands of the Market

Such partnerships between industry and higher education are certainly not new to Utah, but they are becoming increasingly important as the higher paying jobs become more technical.

Speaking of the partnerships, Cameron Martin, associate commissioner for economic development and planning for the Utah System of Higher Education, says, “We need more of it, lots more of it. The alignment we produce in terms of talent and innovation must be in sync with the needs and opportunities of the marketplace.” That, he adds, requires consistent, ongoing communication and relationships with businesses.

Weber State University has been partnering with industry for years. The school’s supply chain management program had its roots in a relationship that began at Hill Air Force Base in 1969. And the school’s new electronics engineering degree is the result of a partnership with the base as well.

A study six years ago concluded that many of the engineering positions at Hill were being filled by engineering technology graduates rather than actual engineers. Base leaders wanted to fill the engineering roles with engineers, so the military installation sent out a general request to Utah universities asking for help. With some persistence, the school was able to develop an accredited degree program that now focuses on all areas of electronic engineering.

“In 2010, when we opened our doors to offer the electronics engineering degree, we immediately had a class of 81 students,” says Jeffrey Ward, associate professor in the department of engineering. “We now have 122 declared majors interested in pursuing electronic engineering degrees and hope to have our first graduating class this spring.”

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