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2013 April 15 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: A Post-Kodak Moment

photo courtesy monroe community college
Paul Brennan, left, associate professor of precision machining, explains a piece of equipment to a student in a machining/job-readiness training program at Monroe Community College.

C  O  V  E  R   S  T  O  R  Y

A Post-Kodak Moment
Amid Photo Giant’s Wreckage, Monroe CC Remakes Workforce Development Efforts
By Paul Bradley, Editor, Community College Week

When Anne M. Kress arrived in Rochester, N.Y., to begin her tenure as president of Monroe Community College, she was stepping into a city coping with a wrenching economic transition.

It was 2009, and the ultimate company town was witnessing the long slide into bankruptcy of the Eastman Kodak Co. — the company that was founded in 1880, brought photography to the masses and provided secure, good-paying jobs to generations of Rochester residents. In the 1980s, 62,000 people worked for Kodak; today, Kodak employees number fewer than 6,000.

George Eastman’s legacy and philosophy live on in Rochester, embodied by the University of Rochester, the Rochester Institute of Technology, institutions he lavishly supported, and the George Eastman House museum of photography and motion pictures, which draws shutterbugs from around the world.

But when Kodak emerges from bankruptcy protection, expected later this year, it will be a far different enterprise than it was before. So, too, is MCC, which aggressively remade its workforce development functions in the wake of Kodak’s demise.

Most visible among the many steps taken by the college was the creation of a new administrative arm, the Division of Economic Development and Innovative Workforce Services. Removing workforce development activities from its longtime place in the academic services division was an urgent acknowledgment of Rochester’s economic distress; in addition to Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb had been eliminating thousands of jobs. The three industrial giants once accounted for 60 percent of Rochester’s workforce. It’s now closer
to 5 percent.

In times past, the workforce needs of Rochester were easy to define. They were whatever the Big 3 needed. The companies would routinely send legions of workers to MCC to burnish their skills and the college would happily open up their classrooms. Now, the workforce development landscape was fragmented. The economy had remained relatively robust due to Big 3 spinoffs. The question was how to keep it that way.

“When I got here, one of the initiatives the board was interested in was how to restore workforce development to a place of prominence,” Kress said. “At that time, it was difficult for the college to get its moorings. We went from the Big 3 with thousands of workers to lots of companies with fewer than 100 employees. They could not necessarily afford training. How does a college do workforce development when the companies are bringing you very different needs and demands?”

Kress said the college had to begin to assume the role of “convener,” looking at clusters of industries rather than working with individual businesses,

MCC stands out as an example of the growing, essential role community colleges are playing in the economic development of their regions. Since Community College Week published its first edition in 1988, the country has weathered three recessions and undergone unprecedented technological upheaval and globalization.

All the while, community colleges have been important players in workforce development, but the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act of 1990 was a turning point. Not only did the law direct money to the states for workforce training — the current iteration of the law provides $1.3 billion in funding — but it also stressed combining vocational skills training with academics. It was a new notion at the time, but has provided a template for current workforce training programs.

Today’s employers say workplace skills are no longer enough. Factory floors and high-tech equipment demand not only the ability to perform a task, but also the so-called soft skills: the ability to calculate, to communicate, to collaborate, to make wise decisions and work as a team.

As these new workforce demands have emerged, community colleges, owing to their deep roots and close ties to their communities, have assumed a central role in meeting them.

“It’s a natural role for community colleges to take a leadership position in responding to workforce development needs,” Kress said. “These needs change frequently. We are naturally positioned to get people around the table to address them.”

Kress tapped Todd M. Oldham, then associate vice president of Corporate & Continuing Education at Clark College in Vancouver, Wash., to head the new workforce division at MCC. His charge: rebuild MCC’s long dormant bridges to business, industry and economic development sectors and develop strategies to respond to local economic development and training needs — all without constructing just another administrative silo isolated from the traditional academic functions of the college.

“My job is to give focus and added urgency to the workforce development piece,” Oldham said. “The spirit behind it is to look at the credit and non-credit programs and see how they can work together to create more educational pathways.”

Many of those pathways, Oldham said, will lead to middle-skill jobs, positions requiring more than a high school education, but not necessarily a four-year degree, in fields like computer technology, health care and advanced manufacturing.

Rochester is the hub of a relatively well-educated region; nearly 50 percent of New York state residents aged 25 to 34 have at least a bachelor’s degree, the fifth highest rate in the country. But like other cities, Rochester is experiencing a frustrating skills gap in middle skills jobs. Too many people are looking for jobs even as industries say they are unable to find sufficient numbers of qualified workers.

A critical step in closing that gap has been improving relations with area employers, a task made more daunting by the fragmented nature of Rochester’s new economy. One of the first steps Kress took was to bolster the college’s workforce advisory boards to identify workforce needs and design curriculum to meet them.

Jim Sydor, who graduated from MCC in 1971, is owner of Stefan Sydor Optics, a precision optics firm his father founded more then 40 years ago. He’s worked with the college to bolster its optical systems technology program, believing the college can help sustain one of the bright spots of the regional economy.

“Rochester is a big optics town, because of Eastman Kodak and Bausch & Lomb,” he said. “There are thousands of people fabricating and polishing glass. There are about 85 companies involved in making clinical components.”

Said Kress: “It’s a strong cluster, one that is unique to Rochester. But it needs a strong pipeline of qualified workers.”

By the time Kodak started its downward economic slide, the optical systems technology program was well-established. In 1963, the college became the first in the nation to create a two-year degree program for training technicians to work in the optical industry. Together with the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester, it worked to train an optics workforce.

The MCC program was routinely at capacity, sending its graduates to work at Kodak and elsewhere or on to top four-year universities. But as Kodak withered, so did the optics program, Sydor said.

“As Kodak started winding down, so did the program,” Sydor said. “The headlines were saying that Kodak was laying off 5,000 people, and parents saw that and didn’t want to send their kids. The problem was we still needed workers.”

The program has been reinvigorated under Kress. A new program coordinator with a strong background and research and development was hired last year. Donations, including a $250,000 gift from Sydor, helped with the purchase of new equipment. Leaders of the optics cluster were invited to MCC to help write curriculum. Enrollment is at capacity.

“We all got together and looked at the curriculum,” Sydor said. “We said ‘we don’t need fiber optics technicians, we need optical fabricators.’ So we changed the curriculum to fit the needs of the local community.”

Part of the problem in rebuilding the optics technology program was convincing potential students that their training would not lead to a sales job behind a counter LensCrafters. Optical systems technology is a highly specialized field with applications in telecommunications, digital imaging and photography, fiber optics, robotics vision systems and even entertainment. Sydor’s company has fabricated the glass used in 25,000 3D movie projectors around the country.

Technicians work side-by-side with scientists and engineers in research, development, design, manufacturing and quality control. They perform testing and evaluation of optical components and systems.

MCC has made strides to clarify erase confusion over jobs. It created a summer program designed to get high school students interested in the field. Oldham spearheaded creation of the MCC Career Coach, a free web-based search tool designed to show students connections between areas of study and related job opportunities. The job search tool has up-to-date local employment data, job descriptions and openings, estimated earnings, the number of people in a specific field, the number of workers near retirement and what programs MCC’s offers to prepare for one of those jobs.

“The tool is mapped to all occupations that we provide training for, but we want to be able to provide accurate and timely information so students and parents can see what types of careers are available,” Oldham said.

The future of workforce development at MCC will depend on more than new technological tools. A new imperative in equipping students with requisite skills to earn a middle class wage is an effective commingling of the college’s academic and workforce development functions, Kress said. .

“We want to make sure there is a strong overlap,” Kress said. “A dean of workforce development meets regularly with academic services. There are a lot of people in non-credit courses who want to move into the credit side.”

“That whole swirl of credit and non-credit will be standard operating procedure moving forward. This is not a one-and-done educational system anymore.”

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