As policymakers struggle with appropriate solutions to high unemployment rates, the focus often turns to the strong need for more efficient and effective worker retraining programs.

How can we successfully address the skills gap and retrain American workers for the jobs that exist in the 21st century economy? Too often, workers skills are underdeveloped or outdated, leading to prolonged unemployment or preventing re-employment after job loss. Career and technical education (CTE) programs, such as those at community and technical colleges and area CTE centers, are leading efforts to provide these individuals with the training they need in a format conducive to their lives.

Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin is on the cutting edge of helping employers, employees, and the community adapt to the changing labor market. Through partnerships with local technology centers and businesses and the creation of a workforce development division, Gateway has developed customized training programs to provide unemployed and underemployed workers with the skills necessary to obtain relevant, full-time employment in the local workforce.

For example, students looking for accelerated training opportunities can enroll in one of the many boot camps offered by the college to quickly develop the skills necessary for current job openings. The college offers training boot camps in computer numerical control (CNC), machine repair, and welding. The programs require no prior experience in the industry sector.

The CNC boot camp runs for 14 weeks, and the machine repair boot camp is open for 19 weeks. Both take place five days a week for eight hours per day. The welding boot camp requires 14 weeks of class, with 20 hours invested per week. Upon satisfactory completion of a boot camp, students receive certifications and earn college credit toward a degree. The local workforce development center works with local employers to hire program graduates.

Underemployed workers can also participate in short-term, noncredit professional development opportunities to update their skills and complete necessary certifications to become more relevant in a specific industry. The workshops range from a single, six-hour program to 10-week programs, depending on the industry sector and complexity of the individuals development needs. Topics range from general computer software and leadership training to specific technical skills training such as torque certification (to meet the needs of the growing global wind industry).

These programs exemplify the best of CTEresponding to both individual and workforce needs. However, CTE is often overlooked as a solution to the worker retraining challenge. More must be done to both expand these current offerings and create new CTE opportunities so that more students can obtain the skills they need for successful employment.

Perhaps most importantly, connections between education and workforce development systems must be strengthened to ensure that more individuals have access to appropriate education and skills training. One way this can occur is at a policy level, as Congress works on the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act. Close communication between education providers and local business and industry is also essential to creating programs that provide skills needed by employers and that lead to productive careers.