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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 November 2 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally


C   O   V   E   R     S   T   O   R   Y

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally
Colleges Drill For Local Data In Devising Workforce Programs
By Paul Bradley

In Detroit, employers hiring entry-level information technology workers place great value in the associate degree.

In Seattle, not so much.

That was one of the findings of a three-year study being conducted by researchers from the Community College Research Center and the National Workforce Center for Emerging Technologies. The results were presented at the Conference on Information Technology, sponsored by the League for Innovation in the Community College.

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The contrast between post-industrial Detroit – where 26 percent of residents hold bachelor’s degrees, and tech-savvy Seattle – where 36 percent of the population has four-year degrees — may be unsurprising. But it underscores a critical challenge facing community colleges devising workforce education programs: the need for institutions to closely track local labor trends and strengthen ties with employers as they launch workforce education initiatives.

National unemployment statistics and other information about the state of the national economy are not enough. The most critical data can be found in the communities the colleges serve, education leaders believe.

“There really is a need for all of us to get below the national forecasts,” said
James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College near Detroit. “We, as community colleges, do not exist in a national labor market. We exist in local labor markets. It is very important for us to drill down into the data. There are differences, and you need to see the differences.”

For example, Jacobs said, an IT manager of a small firm may only have a few positions and depend upon workers whose knowledge is general enough to perform many different functions. A larger firm may really want specialization and growing technological sophistication. Colleges must be able to chart out career pathways for local students and develop the course work it will take to win these jobs.

Different Roles

Said CCRC senior researcher Michelle Van Noy: “The different roles for community colleges really depend on the local market.”

Earlier this year, Van Noy co-authored a paper that said colleges face a stiff challenge in linking their workforce development offerings to the needs of the local labor market, testing the ability of institutions to swiftly change course.

“The current economic crisis highlights an increased need for community colleges to perform careful ongoing market analysis to determine local demand for labor, particularly skilled labor,” the paper said. “They need to align their efforts with economic development efforts. It is difficult to predict demand, which means that community colleges need to operate with a continual ‘ear to the ground’ to detect changes in labor market demand.”

The paper continued: “The challenges for community colleges are greatest in areas with dramatic changes in the industrial composition, such as in the so-called ‘rust belt’ of the industrial Midwest, where old jobs are gone and are probably not coming back after the downturn. The challenges are also particularly difficult in high-unemployment states, like California. In these parts of the country, community colleges need to have an even greater link with economic development efforts.”

Colleges also face a daunting challenge in responding to a rapidly-changing employment landscape. Over the past year, the U.S. non-farm payroll has shrunk to about 131 million people, a decline of more than 5.8 million auto workers, stock brokers, bankers, landscapers, carpenters, truckers, journalists, mechanics, cooks, maids and more. More than 1.6 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the last 12 months, along with 1 million construction jobs and 435,000 financial sector jobs.

Industries across the spectrum are undergoing upheaval. Media firms, from newspaper publishers to moviemakers, are adjusting to the digital age. Auto makers are transforming themselves to compete in the global marketplace. The organization and dissemination of information is dominated more then ever before by computers and technical applications.

Into the Void

Even with 15 million people hunting for work, some employers complain that they can’t find enough qualified people. Employers cite a mismatch between available work and people qualified to do it. Many of those who have lost jobs lack the right experience for new positions popping up in fields like health care and energy.

It is that void that community colleges are being asked to fill.

To successfully do so, colleges must have a firm grip on local data, said Frank Friedman, president of Piedmont Virginia Community College. In PVCC’s service area, unemployment has doubled to about 6 percent over the past year. So as he guides the college’s workforce development efforts, Friedman is a frequent presence in the community. He meets with business and policy leaders, serving on the board of the local Chamber of Commerce and the regional economic development board.

“We don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “But if we keep our ear to the ground, we can meet the needs of the local community. Workforce development is an important part of what we do, and I think that there is an acknowledgement that many of the jobs that have been lost are not coming back.”

“We need to be in touch with employers,” he added. “We need to monitor what might happen in the future. The worst thing we can do is have a student spend good money on a training program and not have a job at the end.”

PVCC recently cemented its ties with its community, Friedman said. The city of Charlottesville and Albermarle County donated a vacant, 9000-square foot building to the center where it will expand its workforce development offerings. The former city and county visitor’s center – the property is valued at $4 million – will house programs in software applications, information technology, information security and other programs.

“I think when you get a donation worth $4 million, that tells you something,” he said.

The need for more space is pressing. PVCC’s Division of Workforce Services serves more than 4,500 students annually, but doesn’t have enough space to meet the demand. The new facility will open next March and have five classrooms, a conference room and offices and allow PVCC to ramp up its workforce training offerings. Friedman said the college is moving to respond to the needs of the area’s growing hospitals. In addition, a branch of the Defense Information Agency is soon moving to the area, creating up to 900 jobs.

Timothy Meyer, chancellor of Oakland Community College near Detroit, said his college works closely with local government in developing its workforce development programs.

Shifting Focus

“The challenge is to anticipate the employment needs. We’re been trying to track the emerging trends. That really is fundamental,” he said. “The county does a great job and makes our job a lot more precise. The health care situation is a perfect example. The data points to a need for more health care professionals, and we’ve been responding to the need. We now have the largest nursing program in the state.”

Meyer said the recession has forced colleges to shift the focus of their workforce development efforts. It means college leaders must work not only with business leaders, but also with state and local agencies and even charitable groups such as the United Way.

“It used to be that we were upscaling the skills of workers,” he said. Now it’s helping displaced workers. Here in Detroit, the need is huge, and we are trying to respond to the need.”

In many ways, Michigan has established itself as a leader in workforce development programs. The economic downturn began there as far back as 2001, creating a need that has only accelerated since then. This year, in Michigan, the state legislature approved the Michigan New Jobs Training Program, which offers employers financial assistance for the customized training of new employees. The program allows businesses to partner with one of the state’s 28 community colleges. Funds to cover the costs of training are paid by community colleges; the money is repaid through withholding taxes on the wages earned by the new employees.

Other states are devising programs that hew closely to local employment needs. North Carolina, for example, recently launched its JobsNOW initiative, funded by a $13.4 million grant from the federal stimulus package.

At Central Carolina Community College, for example, 100 people recently showed up at a JobsNOW kickoff event. Among other things, eligible workers can train to be a nursing assistant, phlebotomy technician, optometric assistant, medical office administrator or welder — all areas where state labor officials have identified a demand for workers.

Degrees Matter

The joint CCRC/NWCET study illuminated critical differences in hiring decisions by information technology employers in Detroit and Seattle. Information technology was considered a ripe area for analysis because job openings in the field are expected to rise significantly over the next several years. The demand for computer-related workers is growing as more companies across all industries increasingly adopt and integrate complex technology into their operations.

The study found that degrees matter, but differently in different regions. For example:

IT hiring managers taking part in a focus group viewed educational credentials as an important factor in the hiring process, but made very different conclusions based on their location. Among Seattle focus group participants, the associate degree lacks significance compared to the bachelor’s degree, so applicants with associate degrees may be screened out of jobs. Among Detroit focus group participants, postsecondary education is viewed as important, regardless of type of degree earned, signaling persistence and good work ethic.

Postsecondary education is needed for career advancement. According to the Seattle participants, an associate degree is typically not enough; employers expect workers interested in promotion to seek bachelor’s degrees. Among Detroit participants, while higher education is viewed as important, it is unclear whether pursuing or having a bachelor’s degree is necessary for advancement.

IT certifications have limited value. They play a role, but not in the entry level hiring decision. While industry certifications can be an important differentiator, they are more likely to help in job advancement rather than in the initial hiring process.

Against this backdrop, Jacobs said, the challenge for colleges is to develop career pathways based on local labor markets and the demographics of student populations.

“The truth is that our students are coming to post-secondary education because they want sustainable jobs,” he said. “Students need to see that academic success has a payoff. You can’t separate the two. In order to get people to master skills, they have to be embedded in an occupational context.”tditor@ccweek.com

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