Schools respond to tough job market, demand for technical industry workers

Community colleges and MnSCU are trying to align technical industries with skilled workers.

Jill Jensen

 

After six months of searching and more than 100 job applications, 2010 University of Minnesota graduate Megan Smith went back to school.

Smith, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University, enrolled at the Aveda Institute after she couldn’t find a “normal job” pushing paper or in a managerial position.

After four months of classes at the institute and a couple thousand dollars, she went to work as an esthetician at The Refinery in Dinkytown.

She is one of an increasing number of University students who find that just completing college doesn’t guarantee a career — especially in a competitive job market. Higher education institutions are rethinking their programs and the value of their degrees, especially as the demand for technical industry workers has increased.

“You don’t have any skills coming out of a liberal arts degree,” Smith said. “They don’t teach you how to do anything.”

The labor market is improving, but it’s still difficult for job hunters to find them, said Oriane Casale, assistant director of Labor Market Information for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

She said once the market starts improving, more people graduating with bachelor’s degrees will find good jobs out of college.

 “I think that B.A. is going to pay off for you, even if it doesn’t lead directly into a job.”

Casale said people with a higher education degree are less likely to be unemployed and more likely to make more money — a college degree makes people more marketable.

Smith said she felt like she needed a graduate degree in order to find a job, but no one told her while she was in school.

Casale said there’s been debate within her office and in Minnesota about a “skills gap” — a shortage of skilled workers in technical fields — but that the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development doesn’t see one.

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is trying to align its programs with the Minnesota workforce, Melinda Voss, spokesperson for MnSCU, wrote in an email. MnSCU will conduct a study in March and April to ascertain what jobs are needed in each region and sector of Minnesota and what skills students need to acquire to obtain those.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama created a “Community College to Career Fund” to train 2 million workers with skills for high-demand industries like health care and advanced manufacturing.

Students with a liberal education learn skills applicable in any field like communication, analytical thinking skills and creative problem solving, said Christopher Buckley, a career counselor in the College of Liberal Arts Career Services.

“Those are the kinds of skills that employers don’t want to have to teach you,” he said.

While a college degree is valuable, he said, students don’t understand just how important experience really is.

Students should get involved with clubs and organizations, volunteer work or professional experience in the field they’ve chosen.

“Just going to class and doing well, although that’s important, it’s not enough to be well-prepared for the job market after you graduate,” Buckley said.

While some ignore trade fields, Smith was able to get past the stigma that service-industry jobs aren’t “prestigious.”

She works four days a week and is paid on commission. She said you can “build a really good life” in this job.

“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”