How hands-on learning is key to bridging the skills gap.

lab-skills-classIt’s no news to say that there is a skills gap in the U.S. today, but if it’s not addressed soon, our labor market, particularly in technical fields, is headed for major problems.

Across the board in industries from manufacturing to construction and engineering, demand for highly trained technical workers remains high and employers are scrambling to secure the available talent that does exist. By 2020, the problem will be at crisis level in many fields. Demand for employees in the professional, scientific and technical service fields is expected to rise to 29 percent. Some specialist industries project major employee shortfalls; welding for example, expects a skills gap of as many as 290,000 workers from engineers to inspectors to teachers.

While some employers are turning to on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs, those can only take employees and the industry so far. In reality, we as higher education administrators and faculty must take up the challenge of evolving the standards and methodologies of technical education in order to both prepare the best technical workers of the future and make a technical education a fully rounded, engaging experience for graduates.

As Provost of Dunwoody College of Technology (and a former HVAC instructor), I’ve seen many students struggle to understand why they have to learn theory alongside technical skills. More rare, but still of concern, are the students who are more comfortable in the classroom and struggle to embrace hands-on practice in labs, studios and shops, which requires patience, hard work and diligent acquisition of specific skills.

But both theory and application are necessary for true learning to really take root. It’s a self-reinforcing model of learning, which, put quite simply, looks like this:

Theory Reinforces Practice (and vice versa)

The crucial importance of context cannot be over-estimated. In more standard educational models, students first build a foundation of theory and then later in their degree program apply that theory through specific coursework and internships. We’ve found that by flipping this model and immersing our students from day one in real-world environments and workplace situations they more quickly develop a body of experience and contextual understanding of specialist technical environments that make the learning of theory far more relevant and successful.

 (Next page: Real world, hands-on, employer-needed training)

Experience the Real World on Your Campus

It’s not always practical and, frankly, can be expensive, for institutions to coordinate frequent training with employers during school terms. By creating on-campus training facilities that replicate the environments, expectations and project-focused challenges of real, specialized workplaces, students aggregate over time invaluable hands-on learning and experience designed to get them ready for apprenticeships and day one of employment. This requires investment and continued refinement in cooperation with industry, but where equipment, software, materials and projects mirror industry, students gain experience that builds their confidence and thus their commitment to, and knowledge of, industry expectations.

Hands-on Material Knowledge

Similarly, in some technical fields, the fabrication and introduction of new materials, tools and technologies is happening at an ever-faster rate. Creating opportunities for students to not only become familiar with emerging materials and new technologies, but also to physically work with them and understand their properties and parameters, creates a far greater degree of knowledge currency and job readiness post graduation and increases student excitement over the directions their chosen fields are pursuing.

Cultivate Employer Relationships

Too often the logistics and mechanics of networking are left to the student. But close ties with local and national level employers can be beneficial for any educational institution, its faculty and student body. Many technical industries such as automotive evolve their product technology so rapidly that without developing close ties with, or developing training syllabuses around, the specifics of employers’ changing needs, there is no way for students to stay workplace ready. Colleges and other technical institutions must partner with technical employers to develop a two-way relationship to intimately understand both the pace of change and the projected future needs of their workforce one, two and even several years out.

Practice What You Preach

Lastly, at Dunwoody, we’re focused on the right people to teach our students and lead our academic programs. That means faculty must be both gifted teachers and proven professionals with a deep love for and engagement with their field. The ability to bring anecdotal experiences, relevant case studies and the ability to think, talk and answer questions like an employer would is invaluable in shaping the best skilled technicians of the future.

Jeff Ylinen is Provost of Dunwoody College of Technology. He attended Dunwoody in 1979 and began his career as an instructor in the HVAC Systems Design program in 1981. He has more than 30 years of experience as a teacher and administrator in technical education, holds a Master of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin, a certificate of Management and Leadership from the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management and is active in SkillsUSA and the Minnesota Technology and Engineering Educators Association. Jeff can be contacted at jylinen@dunwoody.edu.


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