It’s already that time of year for my three sons to head back to school! This is a particularly emotional rite of passage at our home, as one child enters middle school and the youngest enters kindergarten.  Dreams of becoming doctors, sailors and chefs change daily, but the reality is the careers that my boys end up in may not even exist yet. 

"Take cybersecurity as an example. This is a growing career that didn’t exist when I was a child, and yet it has a demand of 3.5 million positions by 2021," according to a study by Cybersecurity Ventures. The Tucson metro area is well-suited to address this need, as the University of Arizona has UA South Cyber Operations in Sierra Vista and Pima Community College, and introduced a new cyber warfare range along with cybersecurity degrees. With more than 6,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in Arizona, our institutions of higher education are proactively shifting to fill this void and prepare the workforce. 

What’s interesting is that overall, only 20 percent of future careers will require a traditional four-year college degree. According to the National Skills Coalitions, skills demand will be focused on those requiring more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree, called middle skills. Does this mean there is no role for universities? Absolutely not! The University of Arizona is a significant contributor to our state’s economy as a major employer, leader in research, development and innovation and of course as an educator building talent. The UA South Cyber Operations program is a great example of how the university responds to industry needs. 

In general, our educators at all levels are building talent skills. The goal is to make sure those skills align with market demand. Gone are the days of picking a career and staying in it for decades. The generation that just entered the labor market has the advantage of choosing their own adventure. My boys are likely to jump careers best suited to their skills. Skills-based matching is how employers are finding their best talent.  An example is a cake decorator becoming a welder. The precision necessary for both careers translates across invisible industry lines. Employers have to think differently about how they define the needs of a position. 

Nationally, there is a disconnect between the skills employer, industry needs and the talent available to fill positions. Currently, 53 percent of Arizona’s labor market is middle-skills jobs, but only 47 percent of the state’s workers are trained to this level. Within the city limits, the poverty level is at 20 percent and yet our unemployment rate is one of the lowest ever. We have a working poor problem. 

The average age of a PCC student is 27.  When you put all those facts together, you find opportunity. Dr. Ian Roark, Pima Community College’s Vice President for Workforce Development, conducts lectures on the “lost decade.” Where are those future PCC students between high school graduation and when they enter the college in their late 20s?  We know we have openings in Arizona ready to be filled by those with the right skill level. 

Pima Community College is launching their Centers of Excellence. This is the next stage of advancement of colleges building strategic partnerships to address employer needs largely focusing on those middle skills across industries. The University of Arizona has its own Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations as designated by the National Security Agency. One of our community’s strengths is our partnerships with the academic community.  We have two exceptional examples of how our academic leaders are striving to meet the demands of industry far into the future. Both institutions are synergistically aligned as part of our overall workforce development ecosystem dedicated to creating talent that ultimately makes Tucson competitive nationally.

The chamber is bringing these pieces together and creating a “Tucson Pipeline.” Bringing technology, process and people together, we are launching a platform where talent can set up a profile where their background, experience and education are translated into skills. Employers can set up their own profiles and open positions go through the same skills-based translation.  More importantly, our job trainers can add career pathways directing talent to the resources available to close identified skill gaps of those on the platform.  Most impactful, however, is that the same platform will allow for career exploration beginning with our middle school students so that we can lead future generations into meaningful, fruitful careers. 

Tucson’s workforce development ecosystem provides lifelong learning for the community while also adjusting and evolving to build the right talent for industry needs. The willingness of our major workforce development partners to collaborate, partner and innovate is what makes Tucson stand apart from other communities.  

While the biggest decision my boys have to make right now is choosing the perfect mechanical pencil, I am confident that our community is well aligned to develop their skills to make them a doctor, sailor, chef—or some other profession we haven’t heard about yet. One thing that’s for sure is the future is bright in Tucson.   

Amber Smith is the president and CEO of Tucson Metro Chamber.