Preparing Arizona students to excel in highly skilled professions is critical to the future of our nation.
From engineering sciences and aircraft mechanics to nursing, agribusiness and bioscience, developing a competitive workforce is essential in rebuilding our floundering economy.
At the epicenter of a statewide effort to strengthen career and technical education is the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Through grant funding from the Arizona Department of Education, the college's Department of Agricultural Education is partnering with industry, policymakers, educators and students to bolster Arizona's workforce.
"The panacea to our economic woes is human capital," said Robert Torres, head of the Department of Agricultural Education.
"As we look for solutions to our economic challenges, it's about gainful employment – not only getting a job but having the employability skills needed to keep that job," Torres continued.
Creating cutting-edge curriculum and building employment skills among high school and community college students in career and technical education programs – while fulfilling legislative directives – is the mission of UA's Workforce Education Development Office, or WEDO, administered through the UA Department of Agricultural Education.
"The essence of this project is really to help prepare the next generations of the workforce through career and technical education, whether they are launching their careers after high school or going on to college," Torres said.
So what skills do students need to be successful on the job?
WEDO turned to Arizona industry and business leaders to pinpoint the technical and employability skills required in more than 70 careers.
"The problem is we are still doing school, by and large, like we did in 1800s," said Maggie Mangini, WEDO executive director. "We are not in any way doing school like work. We are not equipping kids with proper tools to help them problem solve and make decisions."
In 2007, the Arizona Legislature required that students completing a career and technical educational program must pass an industry-validated assessment to become certified.
With the goal of creating meaningful assessments, WEDO formed the Arizona Skill Standards Commission. It is co-chaired by Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal and former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Warner.
The commission includes more than 40 Arizona business and industry leaders and presides over the Arizona Skill Standards Assessment System. The commission approves industry-validated standards, awards certificates to students who pass assessments and serves as a conduit to business and industry.
Members of the commission traveled throughout the state, gathering information from employers regarding the skills needed to make their businesses successful.
Based on that information, educators are updating curriculum and assessments are being developed in 74 career areas, with more than 50 assessments currently in use.
The commission found that workplace skills – the ability to think, communicate and collaborate – are as important as technical skills. WEDO staff created a rubric of Arizona's New Workplace Skills, currently being implemented in schools and used by employers.
"We're waking up to the fact that education and skill development and the world of work are inextricably intertwined," Mangini said. "Human capital development is often the mantra of business – not only academic skills but workplace employability and technical skills."
Rapidly evolving technology has "transformed the workplace," Mangini said.
"We have four generations of employees working side by side," she said. "Younger workers are coming in with technological competence and managing mature workers who were not born into the technology. The workplace of the 21st century requires that people of all generations be able to think, reason, communicate and collaborate."
Warner, co-chair of the Arizona Skill Standards Commission, said ongoing input from the business community is vital in preparing employees of the future.
"The message from employers is clear: workers today are not armed with essential employability skills," Warner said. "There is incredible employee turnover, and it is very expensive."
She told the story of a Show Low, Ariz. banker who was part of the conversations that led to the workplace skills rubric.
"He said, 'I have given up on hiring people who are technically capable of doing the work. Now I hire hairdressers to be tellers. They know how to talk to people, they know how to listen, they know how to look you in the eye,'" Warner said.
When meeting with business leaders, the commission expected to hear concerns over cultural differences in the workplace, said David Bolger, president of Corporate Education Consulting, the firm founded by Bolger and Warner that is a collaborator in the project.
"That was scarcely an issue," Bolger said. "The largest single issues were generational issues and technological gaps between generations in the workforce."
Warner said Arizona has become virtually the only state to make significant progress in preparing and assessing career and technical education students.
Mark Dobbins, senior vice president of SUMCO Phoenix, is a founding member of the Arizona Skill Standards Commission. His company manufactures electronic-grade silicon wafers for the semiconductor industry worldwide.
Dobbins said skill development and assessment are critical in promoting Arizona as an international commercial hub.
"Employers are demanding certification as part of the employment process," he said.
"If we are to be successful with our economic development efforts in trying to draw employers to the state, the first thing they are going to look for is quality labor. If we can't show them a path to quality labor, we won't get the business."