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2012 April 2 - 12:00 am

POV: A Community-Based Approach to Growing the Middle-Skill Workforce

Even in the midst of high unemployment, employers are having difficulty filling middle-skill positions, those that require an associate degree, postsecondary certificate or vocational credential. And the high demand for middle-skill workers is expected to continue.

Within the next five years, the nation is projected to have 13.5 million middle-skill job openings and is on pace to have a shortfall of nearly 5 million middle-skill workers, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in its landmark 2010 report, “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018.”

The center’s analysis of New York labor patterns shows that 756,000 job openings by 2018 will require either an associate degree or some college.

These are numbers community colleges can’t ignore. Through a new economic development initiative New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched in July, Monroe Community College is taking strategic steps to address the shortage of middle-skill workers in our nine-county region in upstate New York.

Our efforts are part of a broader strategic plan aimed at accelerating the creation of jobs and economic activity in our region over the next five years. That plan focuses on strengthening partnerships between higher education and industry; aligning workforce development efforts with the needs of key industry sectors; and optimizing business creation, retention and expansion.

The state’s initiative presents an approach to economic development that diverges from the top-down, one-size-fits-all model that ignores the unique assets and challenges of each region across the state.

The new, community-based model empowers each region to set plans and priorities based on its unique issues and opportunities. The state then helps regions carry out their plans for development by aligning state resources and policies, eliminating unnecessary barriers to growth, and streamlining the delivery of government services and programs.

Our governor launched his initiative at MCC, announcing the formation of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, one of 10 regional bodies charged with developing comprehensive five-year strategic plans for job creation and long-term economic development.

The councils are chaired by Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy (an MCC graduate) and each led by two co-chairs from the business and academic communities. The councils bring together higher education and other local leaders from business, labor, agariculture, nonprofits, government and community-based organizations to craft their plans in competition for a share of $1 billion in state dollars. It is exactly the type of public-private collaboration that the governor is encouraging councils to incorporate into their strategies.

Leading the Finger Lakes effort are the heads of our region’s two largest employers, the University of Rochester and Wegmans Food Markets. I serve on this council, alongside 32 others. I also co-chair the higher education work group, one of 11 representing various industry sectors, including advanced manufacturing, energy innovation, agriculture and food processing, health care and life sciences, and tourism and the arts.

MCC and other community colleges are well represented in the groups, with administrators and staff serving on higher education; business services, software and telecommunications; and optics, photonics and imaging groups.

By working together as a region last year, we were able to gain a deeper understanding of the area’s strengths, potential growth opportunities and barriers to progress. Issues and points of pride driving our strategic plan came more clearly into focus.

For example, many members came in unaware of the notion of a middle-skill workforce, its importance to our region’s economy, and the central role community colleges play in responding to workforce needs. In discussions about the magnitude of the skills mismatch in our region’s labor supply, every work group reporting out cited a growing gap between supply and demand for middle-skill workers.

Further research uncovered that by 2016, more than 13,500 middle-skill jobs will be created across our region’s industry sectors, according to data from Economic Modeling Specialists Inc.

The findings led the council to conclude in its final report to the governor that:

Middle-skill jobs make up the largest percentage of the state’s workforce, and regional demand for these employees is particularly acute in the advanced manufacturing, optics and health care fields.

The rapid pace of technological change, increasing global competitiveness, and growing industry demands for career-ready employees make a robust workforce training infrastructure an essential component of economic growth.

Since the first round of the initiative, the state has allocated nearly $70 million in funds to projects in our region, some of which will go to support worker training to fill new middle-skill positions. MCC could begin providing training for a number of advanced manufacturing companies as early as this year.

As the council considers broadening the definition of workforce development to include the K-12 educational pipeline, the role of the region’s community colleges could also expand.

The state’s economic development model so far has brought many positive outcomes. It supports community colleges’ efforts to bolster their career technical education programs and gives community colleges a larger role and a significant voice in workforce development.

It also has raised the public’s consciousness of the community college mission. As host of the council’s meetings, community workshops and public forums over the last year, MCC welcomed more than 1,200 guests to its campus. For some of them, it was their first visit and introduction to what MCC and community colleges have to offer.

Perhaps more than anything else, the planning process has highlighted to employers across the region the value of public-private partnership. As a result of our work in the council, MCC is receiving increased calls from employers not only within our county but in the region that are interested in working with us to fill and grow the middle-skill workforce.

Community-based approaches to economic development, such as Cuomo’s initiative, offer the best hope of filling a tremendous hole in the workforce and strengthening community college efforts in workforce development.

It’s YOUR TURN:  CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: Is your college using community-based approaches to craft workforce training programs?
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