03/15/2013 05:27 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Gateway Community and Technical College Employs Multi-Faceted Approach to Attack Jobs Crisis

It's a jobs gap. No, it's a skills gap. Whatever it is, the fact remains that 12 million Americans are out of work. The only sure-fire solution is to help them find a job, one person at a time. In Northern Kentucky, Gateway Community and Technical College is partnering with local business and industry to fill the need for skilled workers and help the jobless prepare for and find high-wage, high-demand jobs. Gateway is a close partner with Partners for a Competitive Workforce (PCW), a Cincinnati-based regional initiative to grow the skills of the workforce to meet the needs of employers. PCW is supported by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions and managed by United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

Gateway's Workforce Solutions Division has developed a multi-faceted initiative that starts with employer needs for skilled workers, adds technical training and targets willing candidates to create a pipeline of skilled workers to fill the region's growing number of manufacturing jobs.

In the early 2000s, local manufacturers approached Gateway with concerns about a wave of anticipated retirements that would decimate the manufacturing workforce. A consortium of employers, economic development agencies, a regional civic planning partnership, and college officials convinced the Kentucky General Assembly to fund a technical education center in Boone County. The Center for Advanced Manufacturing opened in 2010 and now houses the college's six advanced manufacturing training programs.

Despite the recession of the past few years, the manufacturing community has forged ahead, knowing a turnaround would occur sooner or later. Gateway continued its outreach, developing customized technical and performance training as well as employer access to state funding to pay for skill upgrades for incumbent workers. The college worked with manufacturers to develop apprenticeship programs that enabled participants to earn a paycheck while attending Gateway. Other employers offered to hire Gateway grads as soon as training was completed. Gateway installed academic advisors on-site at some companies to provide career mapping for incumbent workers. These activities are ongoing.

The college focuses on preparing new workers by targeting specific groups. Over the past three years, Gateway has developed a wide-ranging outreach to teens to show them that today's high-performance production environment is a far cry from yesteryear's factory floor. Gateway brings in teens from local high schools for a science, technology, engineering and math hands-on experience. First, the students and their teachers hear about advanced manufacturing education at Gateway. The groups then travel to local manufacturers to see a modern manufacturing environment and find out about job opportunities - and pay scales.

It's been an eye-opening endeavor. "I had no idea these cool products were made practically in my back yard," notes one student. Based on the initial success, the college is developing an outreach to parents to help them understand that today's manufacturing workers need more brains and high-level problem-solving skills than brawn.

The pipeline initiative partners with local high school technology centers, comparing curricula and designing educational pathways that build on what the students learn at the secondary level. Those pathways lead directly to associated production careers. In one partnership, Gateway applied for and won a National Science Foundation grant to place sophisticated manufacturing simulators in Grant County High School. A Gateway instructor travels to the nearby school to teach mechatronics, a multi-disciplinary course that integrates mechanical, electrical and other manufacturing concepts into one problem-solving approach. Students who complete the mechatronics curriculum are immediately qualified for entry-level production jobs.

Gateway's Workforce Solutions Division attacks the skills gap by offering the National Association of Manufacturers' Manufacturing Skills Standards Certification course, another passport into the high-performance production milieu.

Gateway's Veteran Education and Training Services program targets unemployed veterans who need jobs or education. An extension of the manufacturing pipeline initiative, VETS offers career counseling and placement as well as academic advising and training to returning and older veterans. The program began in March 2012 with a $50,000 grant from a local foundation. In its first year, VETS surpassed its goals for both veteran job placements and admissions. The program's employer-driven external advisory board is vital, according to Dr. Angie Taylor, Gateway vice president of Workforce Solutions and Innovation.

"Employer guidance makes a major difference," Taylor explains. "Employers are telling us, 'If a vet earns a mechatronics certificate, we want him.' Now we have employers saying the same thing about the MSSC Certified Production Technician."

The program's placement services are available to veterans whether or not they enroll at Gateway. Navy veteran Chris Courtney and Army vet Daniel Ridley coordinate the program.

"They're great," says Jesse Battaglia, a vet from the Gulf War era who enrolled at Gateway in January. Battaglia served an eight-year stint in the Navy and the Army. After mustering out in 1996, he earned college credits elsewhere, but didn't complete a degree. Well-skilled in the construction trades, he parlayed a co-op position at a large developer into his own construction business. It was a good living until the bottom started to fall out in 2007.

"I like construction, but I just couldn't count on it anymore," Battaglia notes. He learned of the VETS program through the local employment service, which put him in contact with Courtney. "I registered at Gateway on a Friday and started classes on Monday." Battaglia is studying energy technologies.

"Energy demand is growing, and there is less energy to go around. I'm really interested in alternative energy sources, so I think this will be a good field," says the married father of three, who still works construction by day and goes to school at night. His day starts at 5 a.m. with a two-hour commute to the job and ends around 9 p.m. when he heads home after driving back and completing four hours of classes at Gateway. His example personifies the determination required to succeed in today's job market.

Matt Dornbush is another success story. A young veteran, Dornbush recently returned home unemployed, unaware of his options and in need of a job to support his pregnant wife. He turned to Gateway VETS for help and was hired two weeks later by a local manufacturer with which Gateway has an ongoing partnership. "He thanks us for the job connection every time we see him," notes Courtney.

"Innovation, cooperation and commitment are key," says Taylor. "The community has to pull together to find solutions to the jobs crisis."

Dr. Angie Taylor is Vice President, Workforce Solutions and Innovation, Gateway Community & Technical College, and Margaret Thomson is Director, Marketing and Public Relations, Gateway Community & Technical College.