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By Paul R. Bradley  /  
2011 March 21 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Meeting The Need

Photo Courtesy St. Louis Community College

Among the initiatives at St. Louis Community College is one that lets biotechnology students work alongside scientests.

C  O  V  E  R     S  T  O  R  Y

Meeting The Need

Accelerated Training Program Meets Local Needs, Even as Calls Rise for Nationwide Credentialing System

By Paul R. Bradley

It was amid the wreckage of the Great Recession that St. Louis Community College assumed a prominent new role in trying to revive the region’s sagging economy.

The college had long had a robust workforce development arm, but had a new sense of urgency. Ford and Chrysler auto assembly plants, long bulwarks of the local economy, had closed their doors. A once-busy General Motors plant reduced its operations to one shift a day. Industrial plants were downsizing. Thousands of workers were idled and needed retraining in an economy going through wrenching change.


Duncan, Solis Promote Job-College Collaborations

But what kind of retraining? The college decided to find out.

Dissatisfied with relying on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the college, in partnership with state and local economic development agencies, started to mine its own. It surveyed local employers and workers to come up with a real-time snapshot of the local economy.

“We didn’t really know what was going on, so we decided to jump in,” said Roderick Nunn, vice chancellor for workforce development, speaking at the recent Innovations 2011 Conference sponsored by the League for Innovation in the Community College.

The survey aimed at identifying what kind of training workers wanted, and what skills employers desired. The college leveraged social media to spread the word. Importantly, the college pledged to take action on its findings, giving the survey added weight. These findings wouldn’t be gathering dust on a shelf.

“It was important to show the community that we were going to act on this information,” he said.

In all, some 1,500 employers and about 400 displaced workers took part in the survey. The results were emphatic:
63 percent of workers said they wanted short-term training lasting two to eight weeks, while 14 percent wanted long-term training lasting a year or more; 23 percent said “other.”

The result was the college’s Accelerated Job Training program, which offers quick, short-term training for in-demand jobs.

“We really try to look at the information that is available to us before moving forward with initiatives,” said Marcia Pfeiffer, president of the college’s Florissant Valley campus.

Quick Training for Jobs

The Accelerated Job Training Program provides training in a couple of employer-specific programs that are offered at no cost to participants: the lineman pre-apprentice training program prepares students for possible jobs as utility line workers with AmerenUE, an electric utility; the Aerospace Pre-Employment Training Project creates a pool of employee candidates for positions as sheet metal assembler-riveters with Boeing.

The program also trains home energy auditors, home health caregivers, information technology help desk technicians, audio-visual production technicians and potential employers in several other fields where skilled employees are in demand.

“This is for folks who were looking for a quick training program,” Pfeiffer said.

Between 2007 and 2010, the accelerated program trained 370 people, and 228 of them, or 66 percent, have found jobs.

“We’re delighted that in this climate, people who are coming out of this program are finding jobs,” she said.

Added Nunn: “We have created a college within a college.”

The accelerated program stands out as an example of a successful effort to help displaced adult workers return to the workforce. But Nunn conceded that the college is still trying to solve the puzzle of training workers for new jobs while at the same time setting them on a college degree. Many of the workers in the accelerated program lack a high school diploma or aren’t ready for college-level work, Nunn said.

“That is the challenge,” he said. “We see it as a feeder. . .but how do you bridge the gap in terms of college readiness? We are very interested in getting low-income workers into these pathways. We know how to get them started.”

Getting workers to the finish line and into secure jobs remains a critical challenge for colleges, in part because the country lacks an overarching system of identifying and credentialing workforce readiness.

Earlier this year, ACT — best known for its college placement tests but long steeped in developing systems to assess and research education and workforce development programs — issued a paper that called for creation of a national credentialing system.

Entitled “Building a National Workforce Skills Credentialing system,” the report argues the need to create such a system is critical to the future of the American economy.

“We believe our nation’s current workforce crisis is reaching a critical point of no return,” the report warns.

Order from Chaos

“If I were to characterize our intention with this report in one phrase, it would be ‘to create order out of chaos,’” said Martin Scaglione, president of ACT’s Workforce Development Division. “The United States has numerous accrediting credential-issuing organizations with varying degrees of third-party validation or industry recognition of their value to employers and to individuals. As a result, the current credentialing landscape is crowded, chaotic and confusing. Many certificates awarded each year are not portable, transferable or stackable so they fit within a defined career pathway.”

Community colleges, the ACT paper states, are central to the effort to build a national credentialing system. The colleges enroll 12 million students, about half of them working, and 35 percent of the people receiving job training through the federal Workforce Investment Act are enrolled at community colleges.

“Community colleges are uniquely positioned to play a central role in fulfilling the training, education, guidance, assessment and certification functions required to sustain a national workforce credentialing system,” the report states. “Community colleges in particular touch many of the individuals who are restarting their educational journey in search of a degree or certificate; as such, they will be the linchpins of the national workforce credentialing system.”

The report shatters some myths about the current country’s employment picture that policy makers, colleges and workers need to keep in mind as a national system is developed.

“Workers are misreading labor market signals from the recession. Seventy percent think that the recession is costing people jobs regardless of education or skill level, when in fact the downturn is falling hardest on low-wage workers who have less education and lower skill levels. This is an important consideration since some jobs are going vacant in the absence of skilled workers to fill them — and it is a national imperative to ‘upskill’ entry level workers to fill them.”

In June 2009, the unemployment rate for people with less than a high school education was 15.5 percent; for those with a high school diploma it was 9.8 percent. The unemployment rate for workers with some college was 8 percent, the report states.

The task confronting educators is daunting, the report found:

About 90 million Americans, one-half of the workforce, lack the skills needed to function in the global economy or earn family sustaining wages. They face hurdles ranging from the lack of a high school diploma or poor literacy skills that prevent them from moving into the best-paying jobs,

In 2005, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that 30 million American adults scored “below basic” — meaning they could perform no more than the most rudimentary literacy functions.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 30 million 25- to 40-year-olds currently in the workforce who have no postsecondary credential.

Among older adults, those aged between 55 and 64, the U.S. has the highest percentage of degree holders of all countries ranked by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Among young adults, aged 24 to 35, the country ranks tenth.

But perhaps the most significant trend identified by ACT is the “middle skills” gap — knowledge and skills needed to do jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree.

A Skills Mismatch

By 2014, 45 percent of all jobs will fall into this category, but only 25 percent of the workforce will be qualified to successfully perform these jobs. By 2018, 30 million new and replacement jobs (replacing retirees and those leaving their jobs permanently) will require some postsecondary education.

“Far too many Americans do not qualify for good jobs, and far too many firms face challenges in identifying and developing talent,” said Larry Good, chairman of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce. “The heightened demand for technology skills has left much of our workforce without the skill sets they need to succeed in the new economy, while the global marketplace has brought intense new competition. The time has come to foster an earnest discussion about the innovative solutions and public policy changes needed to develop and ensure a more skilled workforce.”

The ACT envisions an employer-driven “layered” system that would begin with a single foundational skills credential with increasingly more-targeted occupational and job-specific skills credentials layered on top.

It would have a common language and standard set of parameters, allowing workers, employers and public and private workforce systems to easily interpret competencies associated with job requirements. The system would promote portability; workers could take their credential wherever they moved, and employers, no matter their location, would accept it.

“The system would cross over multiple business sectors and be integrated horizontally and to maximize mobility from one sector to another, and vertically from foundational to advanced job-specific credentials along define career ladders,” Scaglione said.

In the meantime, colleges like St. Louis Community College are forging ahead by using surveys to identify fields were jobs are growing in their communities. The college purchased a former Circuit City building to expand its Center for Workforce Education, and it’s expected to open in May. Responding to the local needs, the college has recently started a program to train medical intake workers for health care providers, and has a contract to train workers for the Transportation Security Administration.

“As we identify a new market, we try to exploit it,” Nunn said. “We’re continuing to evolve.”

It’s YOUR TURN!  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  How can colleges best link their workforce training programs to the employment needs of their communities?
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