The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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June 12, 2012

Companies taking greater role on campuses in producing skilled students

Kevin Peterson, who helped General Electric redesign a tool to speed up the disassembly of gas turbines last year, is listed on the patent application as one of the inventors. Now, at 20, he is working on a rocket-launch system in Alabama for Boeing.

Peterson, a rising senior at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, is one of the hottest new products in corporate America's supply chain: a kind of futures contract on high-skill labor.

Faced with a wave of retiring engineers and scientists and the need for precise expertise, U.S. companies — including GE, Boeing, United Technologies Corp. and Microsoft Corp. — are making contact with college students far earlier than they ever have. Their involvement extends to advising and shaping curricula so graduates can plug into jobs faster with less training time and cost.

Universities "need to provide our students with hands-on, real-world practical application from Day One," said Rick Stephens, senior vice president of human resources and administration at Boeing in Chicago. "So when they show up at the first job, not only can they find information, not only can they develop it, they can actually do real work."

The corporate initiatives will help resolve a skill mismatch that's contributed to persistently high unemployment since the 18-month recession ended in June 2009. The jobless rate has stalled above 8 percent for 40 consecutive months, rising to 8.2 percent in May from 8.1 percent in April, and U.S. employers created only 69,000 jobs last month, the fewest in a year. The unemployment rate for youths ages 16 to 24 with a bachelor's degree or higher has averaged more than 9 percent annually since 2009.

When the Labor Department released the jobs data on June 1, Treasuries rallied, driving 10-year yields below 1.5 percent for the first time. That's a sign that long-term fixed-income investors see scant evidence of wage-driven inflation as the labor market fails to match workers with jobs — a trend that's contributing to a loss of the dynamism for which U.S. employment has long been known.

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