Arizona education, business leaders form commission to bridge education-to-workforce gap

Oct 13, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 5:28 am

Arizona Economic Education Commission...

PHOENIX — Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has formed the Arizona Education Economic Commission. It is a group of educators and business leaders tasked with boosting the state’s education-to-workforce pipeline.

It marks an increased cooperation between Arizona businesses and educational programs and institutions and is a specific response to long-term workforce concerns in the state.

“In a partnership between the Department of Education and the private companies, the shortage of skilled workforce will be solved. And the students that do not go to college will still have a bright, economic future,” Horne said.

The AEEC has started with some initial goals:

  • Forge partnerships with education programs and businesses to meet industry needs.
  • Uplift the state’s career and technical education (CTE) programs through agreed-upon measures.
  • Increase completion rates of CTE and adult education programs.
  • Create apprenticeship programs for adults and youth through high schools and community colleges.
  • Create recruitment partnerships to get graduates hired quickly.
  • Evaluate and improve educational oversight through data collection and analysis.

The road ahead

The commission’s first chairman is Edward Cota, who is currently the chief strategy officer for the Arizona Department of Education.

He said the workforce faces both short-term and long-term challenges and they want to future-proof Arizona’s economy.

“What are we doing three, five, ten years down the road? That’s what I’m thinking, that’s what this commission is thinking,” Cota said.

He is clear in one belief going into the newly formed commission: The private sector needs to be a key player in creating pathways for current students and adults to high-paying jobs.

“I’m absolutely convinced it’s the private sector that’s going to get us there,” said.

Foreign influence

A key part of the collaboration is partnerships with businesses in and the governments of other countries, notably with Taiwan and Switzerland.

While Taiwan has become familiar with the Valley through large investments into the semiconductor industry in recent years, leaders are looking to Switzerland for another reason: apprenticeships.

Swiss Consulate-General in Phoenix, Balz Abplanalp, said apprenticeships are a key part of Switzerland’s efforts to educate young adults.

“Switzerland has a century-long tradition of up-skilling young people at their workplace, trained by experienced professionals at the same place, in this very sector,” Abplanalp said.

Now business and education leaders are interested in bringing that tradition here through official programs. And like Chairman Cota, Consulate-General Abplanalp said this can only be done through partnerships with private companies.

“Their apprenticeships last 3-4 years. Once completed, the apprentices earn a federal diploma and then they can choose if they want to be employed,” Abplanalp said.

It’s too early to tell how the commission’s efforts will play out, but leaders have already spent one day working, talking and thinking up new ideas.

President and CEO of Education Forward Arizona Rich Nickel has been warning about Arizona’s long-term workforce shortages for several months. He was present at the commission’s formation and is hopeful this will all come together to benefit students.

“I do think it’s a great idea to explore and certainly one that’s been proven to work in European countries and could possibly be part of our system moving forward,” Nickel said.

But he also warns that the Swiss system can’t be copied and pasted – It will need to be adapted for Arizona and, perhaps more consequently, will require large investments and participation from private businesses.

“So, the business is going to have to understand they have to be a major driver of this, which includes investing a lot of their own resources,” he said.

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Arizona education, business leaders form commission to bridge education-to-workforce gap