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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 April 19 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Finding Their Place

                    C   O   V   E   R       S   T   O   R   Y                   

Finding  Their Place
Community Colleges Focusing On Helping Displaced Workers

BALTIMORE — Meet the newest at-risk population confronting the nation’s community colleges.

They are young and old, though a large percentage is middle-aged or older. They are black and white, and every shade in between. Large numbers have never set foot on a college campus, and many never graduated from high school, though some have advanced college degrees.

They are displaced workers, defined by federal authorities as an employee 20 years of age or older who lost his or her job because their company closed, relocated, abolished their position or shift or did not have enough work to give the employee.

And they are everywhere, populating college campuses in growing numbers and testing the ability of the institutions to provide them with the skills they need to re-enter the workforce and make a living wage.

One of the worst economic downturns in modern history has produced growing legions of workers who have permanently lost their jobs. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are about 4 million long-term displaced workers among the nation’s 15 million unemployed. One in four of the displaced workers lost a manufacturing job.

They share many of the characteristics of other at-risk groups, said Melissa Tolle, assistant director of strategy development and organization at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. About 1,800 newly-displaced workers are enrolled at the school, many having lost their jobs in 2008 when a GM truck plant closed its doors.

“It is one of the most at-risk populations we are working with on campus today. They have a lot of barriers,” she said. “Many of them require developmental course work. Many of them never expected to be in the college environment. Some were not successful in high school. They have financial barriers, families to support.”

Part of the Equation

Efforts of community colleges to assist displaced workers emerged as one of the primary themes at the annual “Innovations” conference sponsored by the League for Innovation in the Community College held in downtown Baltimore. Several conference sessions underscored the fact that getting displaced workers back on their feet — and back into the American economic mainstream — now ranks as one of the primary tasks of the nation’s community colleges.

“American community colleges represent a critical part of the equation on how we’re going to rebuild the economy,” said Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College.

To fulfill their role, colleges are navigating a difficult economic landscape being constantly altered by globalization and the permanent loss of jobs. Their work is fraught with the emotional and personal upheavals that inevitably come with the loss of job. And always looking is the seemingly unanswerable question: where, exactly are the future jobs?

During a keynote session, Zeiss gave an example of the difficulties. Once the nation’s second-largest financial center, Charlotte, N.C., has suffered staggering job loses due to bank consolidations and the meltdown of the financial system. Unemployment is now 12.8 percent, a 20-year high, and enrollment at CPCC has jumped by 35 percent over the past two years.

When the college recently planned a campus job fair, 600 businesses were contacted. Forty-one said they were hiring. More than 6,000 people showed up in search of jobs, Zeiss said.

Community colleges long have offered workforce development and training programs, so in one sense the work they are now doing with displaced workers is nothing new. But what is different — aside from the sheer number of displaced workers — is the fact that many displaced workers defy easy stereotypes. No longer can all displaced workers be accurately called under-educated and low-skilled. Many of the long-term unemployed are white collar workers with college degrees.

“There is whole new paradigm of unemployed workers,” said Martha Smith, president of Anne Arundel Community College, one of the host institutions of the Innovations conference. “The spectrum goes all the way through highly-educated, highly qualified individuals.”

The legions of displaced workers also have thrust community colleges to the center of regional economic development efforts. No longer is workforce development enough. Colleges have been charged not only with helping workers get new skills, but also with rebuilding the economies of their service areas. Colleges are working with government and business leaders to identify and nurture growth industries and supply the workers those businesses will need.

Anne Arundel, for example, has been ramping up its offerings in the area of cybersecurity, mindful that that the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) initiative is projected to bring thousands of cybersecurity, technical, scientific, intelligence and homeland security jobs to Maryland. The college has been offering training, and building partnerships with private business and government entities, all in an effort to produce highly-qualified graduates able to fill those jobs.

A Seat at the Table

Said Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College: “It’s important for us at community colleges to have a seat at the table when the topic of the day is economic development. We have become a very important element in the economic development equation.”

By necessity, programs being developed to assist displaced workers are as different as the colleges themselves and the regions they serve. What works in one place might not necessarily yield results in another.

While one size definitely does not fit all, the League for Innovation, with $3.5 million in funding from the Walmart Foundation, is trying to identify some promising models that colleges around the country can emulate. Eight community colleges received grants administered by the League to develop new programs or build on existing innovations.

Larry Worford, who directs the Walmart Brighter Futures Project for the League, said he hopes the project will yield results that can be broadly applied to all community colleges.

“We want to leverage these eight colleges into 1,200,” he said. “This was not just a matter of having eight colleges enroll 200 more displaced workers.”

One of the Walmart grants went to Sinclair, located in an area left reeling when the GM Moraine Assembly Plant closed its doors two days before Christmas in 2008, sending a dispiriting shockwave throughout the entire region.

The permanent closure of the plant was another blow to a region that has earned an unwanted distinction as manufacturing jobs have been shifted overseas. It has experienced 32 consecutive economic quarters of job losses, the longest such streak in the country, said Matt Massie, Sinclair’s director of career services.

“When the plants started closing, it really had a ripple effect,” he said. “We are seeing thousands of thousands of displaced workers.”

The college used its grant to devise what officials call a “high-touch” effort to assist displaced workers. Using focus groups, the college learned that displaced workers have disparate needs, but chief among them is the desire to have a single contact person to help them access their benefits and map out an academic plan. The college hired two full-time counselors to work exclusively with displaced workers.

Sometimes, the most important role a counselor can fill is that of sounding board, hearing out people who are facing life-wrenching changes, Tolle said.

“The worst thing for some of the displaced workers is the shift in life expectations,” she said. “People were working for companies that they thought would never go away. It impacts them personally. If you ignore the personal aspect, you are doing them a disservice.”

Sinclair’s efforts are marked by an intensive case management system, Massie said. The academic progress of the newly-minted community college students is carefully tracked. Their employment history is documented and skill sets are assessed. They get help writing resumes and doing job interviews. Students who are failing will hear from a counselor. The idea is to forge a strong relationship between student and counselor.

Still, for all their efforts, Sinclair and other colleges face formidable obstacles. Money is short at colleges around the county. Some displaced workers refuse to acknowledge their new circumstances and believe against all evidence that their old jobs will return. Many are not ready for college-level work and languish in developmental courses. A surprising percentage has no computer skills. And then there are those who simply eschew any kind of help, not taking advantage of generous benefits available through the Trade Adjustment Act and the Workforce Investment Act. Colleges, in short, can help only those who want to be helped.

While Sinclair focuses on the needs of displaced workers who worked in manufacturing, Central Piedmont Community College is working with a different population. Up to 60 percent of the region’s unemployed are white-collar professionals, said Mary Vickers-Koch, dean of business and accounting.

Matching Skills

For them, the college recently opened a Career Professionals Center to cater to their needs. The center strives to identify the job skills of displaced workers and match those abilities with industries that remain strong, such as health care and energy. The center works with industries to identify the skills they deem important.

The skills of each participant are matched to industries where job growth is anticipated; skills gaps are identified and counselors will link participants to college or community resources for training. Assessments are conducted, and one-on-one sessions with counselors lead to individual action plans.

“Our new center will not only help connect professionals to jobs in growth industries like health care and energy where employment opportunities abound, but it will also demonstrate CPCC’s continued commitment to serving the community during today’s challenging economic times,” Zeiss said in a press release.

In another part of North Carolina, at Rowan-Cabarrus Community, has been dealing with displaced workers for longer than most. In 2003, the Pillowtex textile plant closed, and 4,300 jobs were lost in a single day. The decline of textiles and tobacco left thousands of people without work. Unemployment today exceeds 15 percent.

More importantly, the typical plant worker was 46 years old, and nearly half had no high school diploma. The college had to scramble to help the workers. It had no marketing material or orientation sessions aimed at displaced workers. Faculty were not trained to deal with the emotional distress of displaced workers.

The college has come a long way since then, but it has not been easy.

“We were thrown into the lion’s den with this experience,” said Jeanie Moore, vice-president of corporate and continuing education. “And here we are seven years later still talking about it.”

Today, with help from its Walmart grant, the college operates a state-of-the-art training facility at the North Carolina Research Campus, a $1.5 billion life sciences complex dedicated to health, nutrition and agriculture.

The retraining center, dubbed the R3 Center — for refocus, retraining and re-employment — has risen from the ruins of the Pillowtex. The college is training workers for the new research campus, focusing on the unique needs and talents of each individual.

The experience has changed the culture at the college. Helping displaced workers now ranks as a central part of the college’s mission. The college is also striving to match its academic programs with the employment needs of its region – perhaps the most essential part of its work, and that of any community college. All that training needs to result in a decent job..

“If there are no jobs at the end of the train, that’s a real dilemma,” Moore said.

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