In recent years, industry and academic experts have noted an alarming skills gap rate in the Arizona workplace. Too many positions remain unfilled despite extended vacancy announcements or are filled with poorly matched candidates. This contrasts with the norm of positions being quickly gobbled up by college graduates who have been trained for them. Representatives from various colleges have spoken on the issue, including what they believe to be the cause of it as well as what they believe their colleges are doing in an effort to bridge the skills gap. 

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Ian Roark, vice chancellor of Workforce Development & Innovation at Pima Community College, believes that the talent gap is caused mainly by lack of support for a higher education option that is less than a four-year plan. 

Roark points to a study put together by the National Skills Coalition that identifies a roughly 5% gap between jobs that require skillsets beyond high school, but not four-year degrees, and the number of workers with sufficient skills to perform them. This is in contrast to jobs at either end of the skill level, which have either an excess of workers at the low end or an equivalent amount at the high end. 

“The things that community colleges have always long offered and specialized in, are now becoming more needed by employers, and people in the country are becoming aware of it,” Roark says. “[A four-year degree] is not the only path towards upward mobility and in the history of our country, it wasn’t always the only way in which one could have sustaining wages and find opportunity.” 

Building toward the future

Roark identified societal pressure as a contributing factor to the lack of proper infrastructure. “For many decades you were sort of looked down upon if you weren’t choosing the traditional four-year college route and I think that we’ve set ourselves up systematically for this skills gap.”

Roark also takes issue with the “one and done” approach the greater workforce has towards skills training. Roark cites it as unsustainable, partly due to modern technology such as artificial intelligence rendering certain occupations less desired; historically low birth rates, which lead to a lack of fresh talent; and the pandemic displacing workers who couldn’t quickly retrain for other occupations. 

“People need to be educated and trained throughout the course of their lives, particularly if they’re changing careers,” Roark says as a case for further skills training.

Shimara Mizell, director of people operations for Arizona State University (ASU) echoes a need for skills training, noting that a skills gap in ASU’s Enterprise Technology comes from individuals who weren’t trained in the field looking to find jobs in it. 

“A lot of our jobs do require either some form of formal education or a combination of education and experience, so if you’re an individual looking to break into that field it’s hard to do if you don’t have the training,” she explains.

Mizell says during the pandemic, workers realized their skills had portability, and that they didn’t need to work where the jobs were offered. “I think by doing that it opened a lot of opportunities for employees and left a lot of gaps for us needing those skills, essentially we’re competing at a different level than before,” she says.

Impact of pandemic

Karen Pugliesi, provost for Northern Arizona University (NAU), also identified the pandemic as fundamentally altering the hiring process. Echoing Mizell’s sentiments, she states that geographical location became less of a restriction during the pandemic, as well as the belief that this opens up a wider range of opportunities for graduates. 

“Some [graduates] have some kind of constraint like a geographic location, or a family situation that has them needing to stay in a particular community or even just an interest in staying in a particular geographic location,” she says “That is no longer quite as constraining as it once was in the pursuit of career opportunities.”

Adds Roark,“We have to realize that many people want to get into education and training, but they don’t have all of the support needed to offset those challenges,” he says, noting reasons why someone may not pursue further education. “Things that keep people away from education and training include lack of childcare, lack of transportation, or that they are stuck in a low wage job or two barely making ends meet. To go back to community college is not something that’s an option for them because then they’d have to choose which bills they’re going to drop or not make ends meet for a particular month.”

Roark views the solutions Pima Community College takes to amend the gap as helpful. “Getting [non-workforce participants] back into the workforce requires creative solutions like an apprenticeship, micro pathways offered at PCC like Pima Fast Track.”

Upskilling the workforce

Mizell notes upskilling programs are offered to those seeking to work in Enterprise Technology. “At Enterprise Technology, we’ve created a program called our upskilling program where we have created an entry-level position that doesn’t require experience or education; we’re actually putting individuals through that program to skill them in different areas of IT and finding opportunities to place them in.”

Pugliesi notes a project that NAU was working on an effort to ensure graduates could find work.

“We’re in the middle of a project called 100% Career Ready, which has us doing a short-term, real-time check to ensure that all of our baccalaureate and master’s degree programs have outcomes that are aligned with the career paths that our graduates pursue,” she says. 

Pugliesi also says that NAU would like to see every student leave with pre-professional experience, ideally an internship. Short of that, she mentioned the university was looking for other ways to give students pre-professional experience that may not require a semester or full-time basis, which she explains would be difficult for some students. 

Pugliesi adds that even before the pandemic, students that came into the university with prior experience became less common. 

Roark states Pima Community College’s employer partners are instrumental in engaging people with the workforce. “I’ve been in workforce development for almost 20 years, and I have never seen this much engagement on the part of employers who are willing to take on some of the expense and time, and the effort of the partnership with us.”  

Help from employers

Roark says that some employers will even pay for their employees to attend college on the clock, in an effort to benefit from their acquired skills. 

Christine Whitney Sanchez, chief culture officer at ASU and a colleague of Mizell’s, noted that for enterprise technology, they themselves continue to work at upskilling employees. 

“We have provided the opportunity for our internal employees to get a master’s degree in information systems management and we’ve just put the first cohort through that,” Sanchez remarks, “It was very successful.” 

Sanchez also said this solution helped them maintain employees in an increasingly competitive market.

Roark sings the praises of the Pima branch of ARIZONA@WORK for their collaborative efforts. “In Pima community college we work hand in glove with ARIZONA@WORK Pima County, which is our branch of the regional public workforce system. That’s really the foundational basis of not only ensuring you’re getting people the education and training they need but they’re also provided services of other partners to help offset some of these challenges.”

Pugliesi mentions that with the support of the state, NAU invested in the expansion of health professions and behavioral health programs, noting that the pandemic disrupted the provision of healthcare and created a need for more healthcare professionals. 

Roark believes more work can be done, and that involvement from other entities is needed for the ultimate bridging of the gap. 

“If we could increase not only the amount of funding but the amount of coordination between colleges, social service agencies, local and state government, and employers, to understand these dynamics and really get creative and aggressive with respect to providing comprehensive solutions for workers in media education and training, we could perhaps move the needle on that labor participation rate,” he concludes.