How government, business, schools can team up to fill jobs

AVCO Systems Division needed plastics technicians and couldn't find them. A nearby technical school wanted to train the technicians, but lacked the funds and facilities.

Enter the Bay State Skills Corporation.

The fledgling state agency got AVCO to agree to subsidize about half of the cost of the training by donating employee time and materials. Bay State kicked in a roughly equal amount, about $36,000, to fund the school's side of the program. Now all 11 of the students that completed the first 20-week course are working; 10 are at AVCO. Even in the midst of high unemployment, many industries have a desperate need for skilled workers. The problem: The new employees are needed in an ever-expanding number of highly specialized occupations for which training facilities are scarce.

Federal and state job-training programs have sought for years to remedy this problem. But industry has often been skeptical of the quality of these programs. Now a state-run corporation in Massachusetts is trying a new tack by encouraging colleges and vocational schools to team up with businesses who need trained workers. The schools and businesses work together on the content of the training regimen, making sure that the students learn skills that will meet the needs of employers. Bay State Skills Corporation and the businesses split the program costs evenly. The businesses are not required to hire the graduates, nor do graduates promise to accept jobs from participating companies.

In all, Bay State already has contracted for 36 matching programs that will train 1,943 students. Some $2 million in state funds has been more than matched by about $2.8 million from businesses, mostly in the form of personnel and equipment. Although primarily aimed at supplying industry with trained workers, the programs have also helped the needy. Fifty-five percent of trainees are unemployed when they enter a program; 6 percent are on welfare. More than 14 percent are minorities in a state with a 7 percent minority population.

Despite its modest scope, Bay State is already being touted as a model program. ''For a small amount of money, we have had enormous leverage and enormous success,'' the state's secretary of economic affairs, Evelyn Murphy, recently told a group of New England congressmen looking for new ideas in job training and retraining.

''I think we're going to see this kind of thing in national legislation,'' says Monica Radvany, the manager for manufacturing training at AVCO. Other job-training programs miss the mark right at the planning stage, she says. ''They look at computer printouts . . . or in census data instead of talking to employers'' to determine what training is needed.

''This is the way to go with employment training,'' agrees Robert Lussier, project director at Greater Lowell (Mass.) Vocational Technical School, AVCO's partner in the plastics-technician program. ''We've had CETA (a federal job-training program) and other adult education. We've done a lot of programs. This makes the most sense because of the employer involvement.

''And there's no reason it can't be transferred to a lot of other training. It's a very sound model.''

That's just what Bay State Skills Corporation director Susan Moulton likes to hear. ''Bay State,'' she explains, ''was created with an idea that hadn't been tested at the time: Could you really get companies to spend some time and money in educational training? There was a lot of talk that companies would do that, but it hadn't been proven.''

The program is unusual, she says, ''because we have been able to get people at companies to step forward. Not always at the top management level. In some cases I dare say senior management doesn't even know that they've got a program.''

Without employer involvement, even the best programs can fall flat. ''For example, Control Data set up a technically excellent training program in Pittsburgh to retrain laid-off steelworkers. But there was no interface between the program and the companies that will hire on these people. That got you well-trained people and no jobs. We would not have funded a project like that.''

When a private consulting firm was asked to critique Bay State recently, it noted that ''the design established by (Bay State) is a very solid one, which has the ability to be applied to a variety of occupations, institutions, employers, and conditions both in Massachusetts and other states.'' And in fact several other states - among them Kentucky, Washington, and Indiana - are considering setting up such programs. (California already has one, although it concentrates mostly on the health-care field, Ms. Moulton says.)

Although she believes her agency's successes can be duplicated, the Bay State director also has a warning: ''We were created because (Massachusetts) companies were screaming for trained people. These states are coming up with programs while their companies aren't screaming. From our experience, it takes companies growing and wanting people for this kind of thing to really work.''

Ideally, Ms. Moulton says, many of the job matches will help emerging growth companies fill specialized personnel needs. But if a school aggressively seeks a match with business to produce machinists or nurses, that's fine too, she says. The corporation likes to think of itself as ''a little like the National Science Foundation. Allow us to invest in the cutting edge, and we'll also put time and energy into some entry-level programs that aren't as sexy. For example, we've got a program going with two Boston banks. There ought to be a clerical banking program going on in every major city in the country.''

Beyond specific programs, she says, Bay State's principal aim is to open up communication between schools and industry. ''The Japanese system, which people in this country love to talk about, works because they've got companies, government, and schools that talk together a whole lot. Our programs are helping some of that kind of dialogue take place.''

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