This post is the second of a four-part response by Corporate Voices for Working Families to the recent NPR series, “The Skills Gap: Holding Back the Labor Market,” which explores unemployment in America, the ill-prepared workforce and workforce readiness training.

As the United States continues to navigate through a tough economic climate with consistently high unemployment rates, it is important to note that there are still about 3 million job openings throughout the country.  In a recent story titled, “To Fill Job Skills, Firm Brings Training in Hours,” NPR examines the impact the skills gap is having on businesses and how some are attempting to combat the problem.

According to the story, one of the major problems facing employers is that “technology is outpacing the country’s current approach to educating and training workers.”  Custom Group, a manufacturing company outside Boston, realized the problem it was facing and decided to start its own training school.  At the Center for Manufacturing Technology, students gain experience cutting metal parts in the school’s own machine shop, where they learn to use state-of-the-art computer-controlled equipment. And just about all of the students have been hired by Custom Group or other local companies, many before they even graduate.

It is not surprising to find business providing training to compensate for the lack of a skilled workforce.  After extensive research, Corporate Voices along with national partners published “Are They Really Ready to Work” in 2006.  The research found that employers are not satisfied with the level of preparedness of their entry level hires.  As a follow up to this research, Corporate Voices published a “The Ill-Prepared Workforce” in 2009, which highlighted employers compensating for the lack of prepared workers by providing in-house training, similar to the Center for Manufacturing Technology.   However, many of the employers participating in the research reported limited success with their training initiatives and little knowledge of the cost of these endeavors.

To address this issue, Corporate Voices has recently partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to bring the business perspective to the postsecondary completion agenda. It is widely acknowledged that the completion of at least one year of education and/or training beyond high school has become the minimum necessary for workers to successfully enter the workforce.  This puts Corporate Voices for Working Families at the nexus of an issue critical to the future of the American economy—ensuring a skilled talent pool for a competitive future.

As part of the recent partnership with the Gates Foundation, Corporate Voices’ member company Northrop Grumman Corporation was featured in a set of micro-business cases spotlighting business contributions to postsecondary completion and progressive talent development.

Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding (NGSB), part of Northrop Grumman Corporation, is the sole designer and maintainer of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and requires a highly skilled, technical workforce. To ensure the availability of this workforce, particularly in light of the number of retiring skilled workers, NGSB has made significant investments in The Apprentice School.

The Apprentice School fills the “mission critical” role for NGSB of providing a reliable source of skilled talent and future leaders in shipbuilding and repair. Through its World Class Shipbuilder Curriculum, The Apprentice School offers academic instruction in 19 registered apprenticeship programs critical to shipbuilding. Apprentices can choose from in-demand careers such as pipefitter, heavy metal fabricator, maintenance electrician, welder and more. All programs are registered with the Virginia Apprenticeship Council, recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship. Apprentice School graduates receive state government-issued journeyman credentials in their chosen crafts/trades.

The school also offers six optional advanced programs critical to NGSB in Marine Design, Modeling & Simulation, Nuclear Test, Production Planning, Cost Engineering, and Advanced Shipyard Operations. Conducted in partnership with Thomas Nelson Community College and Tidewater Community College, the advanced programs result in an associate of science degree in engineering, an associate of applied science degree in engineering technology (mechanical or electrical), or an associate of science degree in business administration. Impressively, more than 32 percent of a recent class of completing apprentices earned associate degrees as part of their apprenticeship experience.

More and more businesses are turning to community partners and educational institutions to help close the education and skills gap.  Corporate Voices through its work with the Ready by 21 National Partnership continues to produce tools available to business and community leaders, which seek to build sustainable and long-lasting cross-sector partnerships.  The goal of these partnerships is to provide businesses with a prepared and skilled workforce and community leaders with young people  and working families who are succeeding in life.

Partnerships between business and education are essential to improving the lives of young people and working families.  Corporate Voices, through its workforce readiness platform, will continue to highlight industry leaders, to participate in research design and to educate policy makers, all in an effort to help explain the challenges and opportunities around the education and skills gap facing our country today.  Corporate Voices invites employers who might have a learn and earn model to be highlighted and/or would like to join the Learn and Earn Business Leader Team to explore peer to peer learning of promising practices, to contact us.