Employers, administrators tout business-education link

Economic development group gathering focuses on building key skills

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter



"There's a gap. We need to create more internships in high school for students to learn." Ben Bagherpour Vice president of operations at SEH America Inc.

SEH America's educational programs and the Columbia River Economic Development Council:



SEH America’s educational programs and the Columbia River Economic Development Council:



Surveys indicate that roughly 60 percent of employers nationwide report a shortage of available workers with the skills they need to fill open positions, said Ben Bagherpour, vice president of operations for silicon wafer manufacturer SEH America. He said that can be remedied locally by forging partnerships between Clark County’s employers, community leaders and educational institutions.

Bagherpour was one of five panelists who discussed community partnerships at the Columbia River Economic Development Council’s first-quarter luncheon Tuesday at Heathman Lodge in Vancouver. About 200 business and community leaders attended the sold-out event.

The other panelists were Mel Netzhammer, chancellor at Washington State University Vancouver; Kevin Witte, associate vice president of corporate and continuing education at Clark College; Steven Webb, superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools; and John Deeder, superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools.

Employees need a combination of technical skills, hard skills and what Bagherpour called soft skills, which include showing up to work on time, managing their time and collaborating with a team. Though a significant number of SEH America employees have two-year technical degrees from community colleges, the majority of the company’s employees are high school graduates with no college education.

“There’s a gap,” Bagherpour said. “We need to create more internships in high school for students to learn.”

SEH America has worked with teachers at Evergreen Public Schools to fill that knowledge gap by developing a materials science class now offered at all four of the district’s comprehensive high schools. About 130 Evergreen district students are studying materials science this year.

“How do you grow silicon? How do you grow composites?” asked John Deeder, the district’s superintendent.

Those are the kinds of things students are learning in the materials science class, he said. It teaches students to understand the chemical processes that will prepare students for jobs after graduation, Deeder said. He described the partnership between his district and SEH America as invaluable.

Another way to prepare students for the workforce is to provide them opportunities for work-based learning internships with various Clark County employers, Bagherpour said. So far, 115 students have completed SEH America’s internship program since its inception in the 2010-2011 school year. Under the supervision of SEH employee mentors, students work on dedicated projects while learning marketable skills. The company has hired about a third of its interns after they graduate from high school, he said.

Witte of Clark College agreed that developing relationships with area employers “is probably one of our biggest aspects so our students understand the workforce,” Witte said. “We have the connections to help graduates get the jobs.”

He referred to Clark’s new Toyota Technical Education Network certification that soon will put Clark’s automotive students to work at area Toyota dealerships as they learn. When they graduate from the program, students will have two years of work experience.

Changing education

Deeder of Evergreen noted how education is changing.

“Education is not sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher,” he said. “There are new ways to access information. Students learn to be problem solvers, to be great workers.”

Webb of Vancouver emphasized students becoming savvy with current technology. Vancouver’s iTech Prep students are expected to earn a year or two of college credit before they graduate, giving them an advantage, Webb said.

WSU Vancouver’s engineering program has worked on more than 100 projects with business partners, Netzhammer said.

When someone in the audience asked how a business could get involved in mentoring students, Deeder of Evergreen responded, “Find ways to engage kids in the community. We need to do more to connect our kids to opportunities in a work environment. … For kids to watch someone and learn what it means to be an employee who makes a difference.”

Another way businesses can mentor students is by offering guest speakers in schools or letting students visit job sites, he said.

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