Community Colleges Forge New Partnerships

There are 1,195 community colleges out there, long (and mistakenly) dismissed as the place high school graduates go when they can’t get into a “real” college. That image, however, is changing.

For one thing, the average age of a community college student is 29. With a total enrollment of 11.5 million in 2008, the nation’s community (or ‘junior’) colleges are providing credit courses to 6.5 million students and non-credit courses to 5 million -“ a number to remember.

Montcalm Community College in Greenville, Mich.

When Corp! wrote about the small town of Greenville, Mich. and the way it was able to keep nearly all of its manufacturing workforce of 2,700 employed even after major employer Electrolux moved its production to Mexico, one of the reasons it succeeded centered around Montcalm Community College. Partnering with the city and its chamber of commerce, MCC was able (in just 10 weeks) to create a curriculum that would train hundreds of appliance assemblers to become clean-room technicians who now turn out miles of amorphous silicon solar collection film for United Solar Ovonics. Additional workers were trained specifically for employment with other companies which were induced, in part, to move to or expand in Greenville by the lure of a seasoned workforce with a strong work ethic and state-of-the-art training provided by Montcalm Community College.

Was this an anomaly?

National Park Community College in Hot Springs, Ark.

In today’s economy, with the price of a “typical” four-year college education slipping through the grasp of an increasing number of prospective students, community colleges offer an affordable alternative. Many have already partnered with four-year schools to transfer most, if not all, of the credits students earned during their two-year curriculum. Partnering with a municipality or economic development authority, however, seemed like they were selling out. That is, until you recall the 5 million “non-credit” students. They make up nearly half of total enrollment and are usually taking classes that lead directly to a specific skill-set. It’s an easy transition from learning a specific skill-set to learning that skill-set for a specific employer -“ one who would be moving to town and reusing an old factory or building a new one, thanks to economic benefits not found in their previous location.

National Park Community College, located in Hot Springs, Ark., is currently working with three aerospace suppliers who were seeking an educated, trainable workforce. According to Jill Johnson, director of the program, NPCC worked with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and other state agencies to develop what, in essence, was a pre-employment screening program. The aerospace suppliers had been unable to find enough qualified employees through normal channels. The three then shared the cost of the program, which required prospective employees to attain a silver or gold career readiness certificate and then attend some 25 hours of general industry training. Those that successfully completed the initial steps were required to attend an additional 150 hour “Introduction to Aerospace Manufacturing” course. Nearly half of the students who entered completed the course, even though there was no guarantee of employment.

Joliet Junior College training class for Northfield Block.

Joliet Junior College, located in Will County, south of Chicago, also works closely with its local as well as regional economic development boards. As a result, they have been successful at helping train or retrain local workers to enable employers to become more competitive in a global economy. When Northfield Block Company, a long-time employer, needed to add welding to its inventory of skill-sets, JJC was able to fill the bill and train some of Northfield’s workers to become skilled and certifiable welders.

When a local employer recently announced it was shutting down and 180 workers would become unemployed, JJC deployed a “rapid response” team to assess the situation. Working with the local economic development board they will identify occupations associated with companies the board had targeted to either move to or expand in the area, and provide appropriate training curricula. According to JJC’s Sandy Mol, “We’re in the same building as the Workforce Investment Board so the funds that are coming from the Workforce Investment Act and from the stimulus package -“ some $3 million -“ will be coming directly here to provide for employee training.”

Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College.

In Indiana, Ivy Tech Community College has branches across the state and, according to Susan Brooks, senior vice president of Workforce and Economic Development, works very closely with their state partner, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.

“In the business of recruiting businesses,” Brooks says, “it’s often highly secretive. So we’ll be told, for instance, that ‘project ABC’ requires a certain number of employees with certain skill-sets -“ and not the name of the company or even its industry. We’ll then tell them that we can provide a curtain type of curriculum in our degree-granting Associate program as well as non-credit short courses that are very specifically developed with a particular company in mind.”

ITCC’s Brooks continues, “We played a part in recruiting Medco, for instance. They are building what will be the largest pharmaceutical distribution facility in the world in Lebanon, Indiana. They’re very interested in hiring the pharmacists who graduate from Purdue and Butler, but they’re also interested in hiring the pharmaceutical technicians who graduate from our Associate degree program. In addition, we have logistics and warehousing and distribution programs as well. We were able to tell them not only how many students had graduated from those programs and were available now, but how many we anticipated for the future and how we could build out new programs if they needed them.”

Ivy Tech CC students preparing for new jobs with orthopedic device manufacturers.

When Electrolux decided to leave Greenville they announced their decision two years in advance to allow the town to prepare. Brooks has had the same experience. “GE told the state that it would be closing its production facilities in Bloomington and moving them to Mexico two years before it was going to happen,” she explains. “That gave us time to find another company -“ in this case, Cook Pharmaceutical -“ a company which wanted to expand but didn’t have the trained workforce. We were able to develop a life sciences program which Cook supported and now some of those GE manufacturing workers are going through the college and learning about regulatory affairs, about clean rooms -“ the many aspects of the life sciences field -“ and they’re guaranteed jobs when they graduate. That’s where our role as community colleges comes into play,” she continues. “We’re adaptive enough so that we can help not only attract new business but also retain existing business. Because we have campuses in so many communities throughout the state we’re able to keep our finger on the pulse of economic activity in order to determine what we need to do to prepare for the next change in conditions. We do surveys and focus groups with employers to find out ‘are these the skill-sets you want your workers to have?’ That has resulted in, among other things, our offering more distance and online learning programs.”

Another example, says Ivy Tech CC’s Brooks, “where we’ve been able to help both employees and new employers is the recreational vehicle industry. It’s basically been eviscerated by a combination of the credit crunch and gas prices. We were able, with the help of the state Workforce Development Agency, to go into some of those RV companies before they closed their doors and talk to their workers -“ many of whom were very undereducated. We were able to encourage them that the community college was the place for them to seek training and even degree programs. Since August, more than 400 of them are enrolled in Associate degree programs, often paid for by the state and federal governments and more than 600 are in the shorter-term non-credit programs to develop specific skill-sets.”

Brooks goes on to tell about how an unexpected opportunity has opened up for the former RV workers, many of whom worked in the northeastern part of Indiana. “We’ve placed particular emphasis on our advanced manufacturing program because there is enormous need in Warsaw, Indiana, less than an hour away, for highly skilled workers in the orthopedic device industry. With an aging population there’s an increasing need for all of the devices those industries make. So we’re able to retrain a significant number of the former RV workers for new jobs in the orthopedic device industry.”

Specific job training is not the end goal with community colleges. Brooks explains, “We don’t, however, feel that our job is done when a person gets a job. We’re continuing to push them toward Associate degrees and, working with our partners in the four-year colleges and universities, encourage them to continue with their advanced education as far as they’re able.”

Corp! wanted to know if anything is holding these workers back?

Brooks, in effect speaking for most of the community college leaders Corp! talked to, says that “the main thing, according to our people in the field is confidence. Perhaps they’ve had a less than pleasant experience in high school. Perhaps high school was 20 or 30 years ago, if at all. The idea of going back to school is a tough one. We reach out to them and tell them yes, we’re the school for adults -“ adults with children and other life issues -“ our instructors get it. That’s why we try to offer courses at convenient times, offer more online courses, so that education can work into their lives.”

Brooks looks to the future, “We’ve been told by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation that companies are now considering the workforce component as one of their top priorities -“ not just currently, but for their future needs, and that’s where we’re really able to help.”

Washington, too, seems ready to help according to “a (proposed) new American Opportunity Tax Credit will -¦ make community college tuition completely free for most students. Recipients of the credit will be required to conduct 100 hours of community service.”