Upper Arlington News

Guest column

Working to address the skills gap

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Education is central to the success of the U.S. economy, and two prominent leaders have provided proposals toward ensuring opportunity for all Ohioans.

In his recent State of the City speech, Mayor Coleman expressed concerns about income inequality. He noted that income is tied to education and training, with low skills leading to low-wage jobs. A week later in his State of the State address, Gov. Kasich took it a step further, pointing out that it will take new levels of community collaboration to tackle the roots of poverty and remove the barriers to getting and keeping a good job.

Both raised concerns about the impact this income and education disparity is having on our families, our communities and our state. Both called for action to make sure all residents acquire the necessary skills needed to participate fully in the 21st century economy. Ohio's 23 community colleges stand ready to address the skills gap and help put people to work in high-skill, high-wage jobs.

While our region and our state are showing positive economic signs, too many adults are being left behind. And that gap will continue to widen, with the dividing line being educational attainment.

According to a recent study by Georgetown University, nearly two-thirds of new job openings in the U.S. will require some form of post-secondary education or training. Currently there are 29 million jobs in fast-growing fields that pay $35,000 to $75,000 a year and require an associate degree or professional certification. Unfortunately, there are more than 1 million adults in Ohio without a high school diploma.

Adding to the widening income gap is the fact that 90 percent of the jobs in this economy requiring only a high school diploma are in low-wage jobs or industries in decline. The key to closing the income gap is closing the skills gap. With their deep ties to employers, natural community partnerships and ability to deliver high-quality, affordable programs of study, community colleges are the bridge between under-prepared adults and the high-performance workplace.

In Columbus, a "coalition of the willing" has formed among the education, private and government sectors to tackle the skills problem head-on. Recognizing that many adults do not have strong job skills or clear opportunities to acquire them, the city reached out to Columbus State to help close the skills gap.

A new program called FastPath will help adults gain the skills they need to prepare for the good jobs that are available. Nationwide Children's Hospital will be a demonstration site for FastPath to help people who live nearby acquire the skills they need to get a job at the hospital in their neighborhood.

While helping unemployed and under-employed adults is a priority, ensuring that our young people are well-prepared for rewarding careers is a critical companion strategy. The Educational Service Center and Columbus State have been key architects in aligning high school and college programs to help more students earn post-secondary credentials through a regional partnership called The Central Ohio Compact.

One of the compact's early initiatives is to develop career pathways beginning in grade nine through the associate degree, with work-based learning opportunities and close ties with area employers. This initiative, called Pathways to Prosperity, is the basis for a grant from the Ohio Department of Education linking 20 school districts in our region with Columbus State to prepare students for careers in health care, information technology, manufacturing and other industries.

Momentum continued to build in our region as American Electric Power partnered with Columbus State and Columbus City Schools to develop the Credits Count program, designed to improve college and career readiness for high school students, and provide career exploration in middle school. The program will impact nearly 3,000 students in five high schools starting at West High School.

In January, JPMorgan Chase & Co. announced a major workforce initiative called New Skills at Work, with Columbus being one of the nine cities worldwide targeted for investment.

Policy leaders, employers and educational institutions are aligned to help strengthen Ohio's economy. We have a long way to go, but there are significant pieces in place and partnerships established to ensure that everyone in Central Ohio has the opportunity to succeed in the modern economy.

David T. Harrison is president of Columbus State Community College.

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