01/22/2013 09:14 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Turning Employment Training on Its Ear

By Jennifer Jones, MSSC Certified Instructor, CPT, Easter Seals TriState Career-Based Services Coordinator

Nearly 5,000 manufacturing jobs are open in the Greater Cincinnati region -- projected to climb to more than 16,000 by 2020. Yet, our unemployment rate hovers near 7 percent. When good jobs go unfilled because employers can't find job seekers with the right skills, how do we grow our economy and a brighter future for the people who make greater Cincinnati their home?

Darius has a high school diploma and at 21 has a long list of dead-end jobs. With a huge pool of candidates to choose from, employers take one look at an application from Darius, with his criminal record, and it goes to the bottom of the pile -- or maybe even the trash. How can Darius get real employment -- benefits, opportunities for advancement, a career and not just a job -- if he can't differentiate himself and show employers he's the right candidate with the right skills? How can he help fulfill both the community's needs and his own -- to keep those manufacturing jobs right here in Cincinnati, while creating a lasting career for himself?

I see it every day, people with a desire to get to work and turn their life around but no idea how to go about it. A great attitude and a willingness to work aren't enough anymore. Yes, there are a lot of great programs out there to help but what good is our help if we aren't preparing them for the jobs out there to be had? Are we doing the right thing if we're sending people to interviews without qualifications for the job?

Just another certificate isn't enough. Our partner employers seek qualified employees, but few candidates have actual job experience or credentials. They tell us they see "certificates of completion" from well-intentioned job training programs that have no linkage to their actual requirements and expectations. They need someone who can jump right in and do the job -- candidates who are ready now -- and a certificate of completion doesn't cut it.

I know Darius is as hard working as they come, but without transferrable skills his outlook won't change. He's ready to move on from those limiting dead-end jobs that pay the bills but don't move him forward. As an instructor in the Easter Seals TriState advanced manufacturing transitional employment program, I know that what we do at Easter Seals can help him make the changes he wants. What makes us different is he will leave here with a certification from the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council. This is an industry-recognized credential, equivalent to 5 years of manufacturing experience, AND he'll have paid on-the-job training, a critical factor for jobseekers like Darius struggling to meet basic needs while working toward career goals.

Darius and his classmates attend class with me every morning, working toward their certification. Class starts at 6:55 a.m. While their friends are still sleeping, my students are starting a 4-hour class that will cover topics from hydraulics, pneumatics, electrical systems, and workplace communication. Each day is a blend of online coursework, team projects on topics like constructive criticism or completing a Job Safety Analysis, and textbook content related to manufacturing, quality assurance, precision measuring, or safety regulations. When students leave my classroom, their day isn't done. They spend their afternoon putting what they've learned into practice at Easter Seals' packaging and logistics center. Students meet with logistics center staff to share ideas, brainstorm and look at ways to improve the processes they use to ship more than 2,500 medical testing kits worldwide each week. Darius says this blended approach is something that attracted him to the program. That translates to a work-ready employee who not only completes high quality work, but from day one he can contribute ideas on process improvement, streamlining, and lean manufacturing. That's a huge asset in advanced manufacturing, with its increasing emphasis on brains over brawn.

At Easter Seals TriState, connecting someone like Darius with a good employer is why we get out of bed in the morning, and our advanced manufacturing transitional employment program fits the bill, filling the broadening gap between employers facing a dearth of applicants with the necessary skills, and job seekers who are willing but lack training and experience. "Manufacturing is always going to be there," says Darius, "because there are a lot of jobs and there is a wide variety of jobs to choose from."

There are plenty of job openings as well. The Wall Street Journal reports that in recent years 600,000 manufacturing positions went unfilled because of the lack of skilled workers. So a certificate of completion from a job training program operated by social service workers is clearly not enough. The MSSC was developed in partnership with over 4,000 frontline workers and supervisors from hundreds of manufacturers throughout the U.S. to determine the skills needed for success in the workplace. It's industry-driven, it's objective, and it's meaningful to employers.

The result is a comprehensive, employer-driven training program providing someone like Darius an advantage in today's job market. It allows him to make a real difference for his future while also filling an employment need in the community. The demand for jobs we're training for is projected to grow and the need for skilled workers is abundant, so we know there will be jobs open for Darius when he leaves our program.

Our graduates can document proficiency in the skills and competencies employers asked for. We've also employed them ourselves, so we can attest to the soft skills so critical to career success. Rather than spending time and resources bringing a new employee up to speed or taking a chance on an unproven job seeker, manufacturers who hire Easter Seals TriState graduates can hit the ground running with a new employee, and put their resources into cross-training, new equipment, and new contracts. When we train the job seekers to have the right skills for the career opportunities right now, that's a job creation model where everyone wins.