Education’s challenge: training new work force -- Gazette.Net


Beginning cybersecurity courses at Montgomery College in Germantown drew so much interest this year that enrollment had to be delayed.

That popularity poses a Catch-22 for state businesses and education officials. As the need for courses to train technology workers and overcome an expected shortage in qualified employees grows, cuts in funding for educational institutions create problems in developing the courses.

“Continued success requires both resources to attract researchers and [state] policies that will encourage tech transfer and support new companies,” said Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Hrabowski touts his institution’s success in collaborating with businesses such as Northrop Grumman for technology education initiatives and his school’s commercialization efforts through its incubator program.

Summing up the relationship between education and the private sector, Montgomery College President DeRionne P. Pollard said recently in a statement: “Our community needs quality, affordable higher education in Montgomery County. At the same time, businesses need employees who are educated within the community.”

Pollard cites statistics from Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis, who predicts there will be 1.4 million job openings in the Washington, D.C., region between now and 2020. Of those, 900,000 are replacement jobs.

So business, government and academic leaders brainstorm more innovative ways to create offerings to train workers, fund the education needed to provide workers for state companies and retain companies while attracting new businesses to set up shop here.

More STEM emphasis needed

Business and education officials stressed the need for a focus on science, technology, mathematics and engineering promotion, and finding funding to boost academic performance in the region.

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the state must “strengthen STEM work-force development,” adding that although Maryland’s education systems are highly rated, the state “must work to cultivate more graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.”

Science and technology are expected to play a prominent role in future economic growth, but studies show Maryland lags behind competing states when it comes to work-force development in technology-related areas, Fry said.

Studies also show that more than half of Maryland’s high school graduates need to take remedial courses in math or English when they get to college, Fry said.

“This is an unacceptable impediment to effective work-force development,” he said.

Middle skills training

One educator trying to help advance middle skills training is Jerome T. Countee Jr., director of the Center for Business and Industry Training Workforce Development and Continuing Education at Prince George's Community College.

Middle skills jobs are those that require some training beyond high school but not necessarily a college degree, such as computer support specialists, mechanics, medical technicians and plumbers.

Countee said that community colleges, in particular, have a large role to play in the training.

“In Maryland, there are government-endorsed initiatives that seek to produce more skilled workers by promoting at least two years of education beyond high school,” Countee said.

One such program is Skills2Compete Maryland, promoted by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). It emphasizes attaining the skills and credentials students need to get good jobs with family-supporting wages.

“Within Prince George’s County, career and technical training is getting greater emphasis in high schools to ensure graduating seniors are ready for college and/or a career,” Countee said.

Prince George’s Community College has programs that focus on construction and other trades-related skills, in addition to IT programs. School President Dr. Charlene M. Dukes has joined 15 other state community college presidents to sign the Promise to Act, which is a plan to significantly grow completion and graduation rates by 2025, Countee said.

He also cited partnering efforts — with businesses and other groups to promote middle skills training — that will provide entry-level opportunities for some and increase advancement opportunities for others.

Enable education, increase productivity

Jack Garson, a lawyer with Bethesda law firm Garson Claxton who has served on regional, state and county advisory boards — such as the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the Maryland Comptroller's Business Council and the Montgomery County Maryland Economic Advisory Council — has his own ideas to enhance the system of educating prospective workers.

It’s based on lending money to qualified college applicants. First, Garson said, establish a panel to determine which college educations would most benefit society and/or fill the demand for jobs.

Then, lend money to qualified applicants with the stipulation that the students would repay the loans based on a percentage of their gross income for the rest of their working lives — perhaps a few percent of their gross income until they reach age 65.

With the proper criteria in place, the obligations to repay the loans could be pooled and sold as bonds to investors, he said. The funds from these bond sales could be used to loan money to additional students.

Garson said the eligibility criteria for the students must be strict to avoid excessive defaults, such as occurred with the mortgage “fiasco,” but the benefit to the students are available loans that are “not unduly burdensome.”

“If they repay a lot, that means they are making a lot —in part due to the very loan that gave them the education that produced their earnings power,” Garson said, adding the result would be a more-educated work force and a “largely self-sustaining source of funding.”

Todd Klein, a venture capital executive with Legend Ventures in Bethesda, looks at another part of the equation, referring to the current visa system that limits the number of foreign workers to fill jobs locally.

He said he attended a Washington Ideas Forum earlier this year, and “there was unanimity that our immigration situation is shackling innovation by educating the best and brightest and then kicking them out of the country.”

“These policies are unnecessary, foolish and, moreover, hypocritical,” he said. “If a student is 6-foot-9 and can dunk a basketball, we find a way for him to stay, but we eject our most sophisticated technical minds.”

Although immigration is primarily a federal issue, Maryland can do its part to lobby for more rational immigration laws, Klein said.