What Can Your Firm Expect From the Community College?
From providing customized training to building up an area's work force, community colleges can be an invaluable company resource.
Debra Collins (Nov 07)

If you haven't been on a community college campus in a while, you might be surprised. The buildings may look the same on the outside, but what goes on inside - especially in the areas of work force development - has changed dramatically in the past two decades.

"Our labs range from a state-of-the-art nursing instruction center with mannequins that reproduce human behavior to diesel shops suited for complete service operations. All of our classes are linked via Internet to enable program delivery at remote locations, including on-site at company facilities," says Art Hill, vice president for economic development at Blue Mountain Community College (BMCC) in Pendleton, Ore. "And many are surprised to find us willing to open new programs for their particular needs," he adds.

The college is one of over 200 to receive special work force development grants through the Department of Labor's community-based job training grants. BMCC's grant will be used to ramp up efforts to train workers for manufacturers. Almost $500 million has been awarded through the program since 2005, and more is expected to be included in next year's budget. The program grew out of the President George Bush's 2004 State of the Union address.

"This.will position community colleges as places where economic and talent development efforts pay larger dividends for regions across the country. Selected community colleges will not only prepare lifelong learners for the 21st century economy, but also become more integrally involved in regional economic development," according to Emily Stover DeRocco, the Department of Labor's assistant secretary for employment and training.

Part of the Location Decision
While community colleges have always been a vital part of work force development, some grants are also positioning community colleges to be a major factor in the decision of where to relocate or expand.

"When I'm looking at an area, I always meet with community college representatives - and not just administrators. I want to meet program directors and faculty," says Buzz Canup, head of the consulting firm Canup and Associates based in Austin, Texas. Canup says the training provided by community colleges can be a dealmaker, or breaker, in site selection decisions.

Community colleges offer associate's degrees in two general areas: One is aimed at students planning to transfer to four-year institutions. Majors in this area may include everything from arts to zoology. The other type of degree is a technical degree. The majors or concentrations offered in technical areas are largely determined by the area's labor needs. Many community colleges, including a lot of those grant recipients, are taking a new look at manufacturing skills.

"The better community colleges have a strong focus on both academic programs and occupational programs. They serve as a feeder for four-year colleges and meet the needs of area employers," Canup explains.

In addition to degree programs, community colleges offer technical certificates in fields like manufacturing, maintenance, computer science, CNC (computer numerically controlled) programming, management, and quality control. Some offer concentrations in more than 50 technical areas.

Many skills taught at community colleges are applicable to all industries. BMCC recently cross-trained a company's bronze foundry workers on-site to increase quality and production levels. Hill says his most popular classes include work readiness, English, and supervisory skills. "The list is largely the same for both existing and prospective businesses, with variations for the type of industry," Hill notes.

The ability of community colleges to be flexible and provide very customized training makes strong community colleges very attractive to business executives, Canup adds. "Most community colleges will design specific courses based on a particular business' needs and methods of operation. The college does everything. It brings in people that do task analysis and then develop materials for the courses. It provides the instructors and materials," Canup explains.

Building an Area's Labor Pool
Western Iowa Technical Community College (WITCC), located in Sioux City, plans on taking the concept of customization one step further with the $1.49 million it received in the second round of Department of Labor grants.

"We're going to retrofit trailers with different work stations where students can learn CNC and other skills," says Martin Reimer, dean of Corporate College. He says an advisory council made up of industry representatives determined the equipment and software being put in the trailers.

But WITCC isn't stopping at improving available training. The college is working to improve the number of people taking advantage of that training with the goal of ultimately increasing the area's pool of skilled manufacturing employees. The grant will also fund an initiative to attract high school students into the college's advanced manufacturing program.

"One of the biggest things we hear from businesses that are relocating is that they're trying to find skilled labor. So the challenge for us now is to get students interested at an early age. We want to give them a basic understanding of what it's like in advanced manufacturing. Manufacturing is not like it was 20 years ago. It's very high-tech," Reimer says. "When the labs aren't training workers, we're going to take them to area high schools and give students a chance to see how technology works. We see it being part of the curriculum when high schools can't buy the expensive equipment. We can come in and provide lab experience."

Reimer focuses on meeting the needs of both existing and incoming companies. He notes that the college takes a consultant's approach to each company. "We specialize in customized training. We do an assessment, and whatever a company needs, we work with them to build a comprehensive training package, " he says.

Reimer usually becomes involved through the Iowa Department of Economic Development. A prospective company or its representative contacts the state agency and then the agency contacts him. The state economic development office also administers the Greater Iowa Values Fund, which funds some training for new companies.

Canup says access to state and local funding sources like the Greater Iowa Values Fund is another reason to look to community colleges for training. "Most states are going to have some type of funding to help with training costs at community colleges. It might be $500 a job or it might be $1,000 or even $5,000 per job. Community colleges may also have access to funds. Generally, the larger the company, the larger the funds," he says.

Relocating companies who receive training from the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) BioNetwork have received $100,000 and more in training.

"For larger companies, the training could be valued at up to $1 million," notes Phil Sheridan, industry liaison for the NCCCS BioNetwork. He adds that money for subsidized training comes from the community college system. The program was begun five years ago after existing businesses complained about a lack of trained workers in the state's growing pharmaceutical and medical industries. The program provides training, curricula, and equipment specifically for industries related to the life sciences.

"We have trained thousands of people in the last year. One of the advantages is that our programs can be customized if new technology is added or as a business grows," explains Sheridan.

Norman Smit, director of the NCCCS BioNetwork, adds that community colleges can ramp up programs quickly - something that's particularly important for pharmaceutical companies. "Companies that we deal with have spent a lot of money and come through a lengthy process to produce a new drug. Once it's approved, they have a limited window when they can recoup the money spent in research. If workers aren't ready, they lose part of that time," Smit says.

Smit believes that some business executives would be very surprised walking in their labs, but they would feel right at home. "We've made it as close to a factory as you can get," he says, "but it's an educational facility. We have a mobile lab. We have equipment that's identical to the equipment you'll find at a manufacturing facility."

Training programs range from six weeks all the way up to two-year degrees designed for students going on to earn bachelor's degrees and eventually entering graduate school.

Some Advice
Canup, along with the community college officials interviewed for this article, says that community colleges vary greatly from state to state. According to Canup, you can even find big differences between community colleges within the same state. So how can you tell exactly what you can expect from a community college in a particular area? Here are some tips:

• Look for accreditation by regional groups. Then, look for accreditation and certification within programs, particularly the programs your company will need. If a program is new, find out if accreditation plans are in the works.

• Get references. Then ask references for references. Look at the processes your company uses for any potential vendor and apply some of those to evaluating a community college.

Canup advises that when you talk to companies that have worked with the community college, ask specific questions. Have people come back from training with the expected skills? How does the college treat business that is established? This is also a good time to find out about a college's outreach program. How strong is the placement department? Does the college have the resources to help you recruit workers if you need that function?

Ask about a college's flexibility

"One of the clearest indicators (of a college's commitment to supporting business and industry) is whether college administrators and faculty understand that industry training doesn't necessarily mean a standard `academic' program with 30 credit hours on-campus on the regular semester program," Hill advises. "More often industry training means putting together a short-term training program that may or may not earn traditional college credits. And it may be delivered during shift changes, on holidays, and at a company's facility. Those requirements won't surprise a college involved in and committed to industry training."

• Look at retention rates among businesses that hire graduates of a community college.
"In general, you'll find a higher retention rate among employees with community college training when compared to students with a B.A. or B.S. Our graduates usually want to stay in the area," Sheridan explains.

• Take a look at the academic side, even if you only need technical training. A good community college has established strong partnerships with four-year colleges.
"Matriculation agreements guarantee that our students with a two-year degree receive 100 percent of their credit when they transfer. That shows an awareness that two-year biotech graduates have everything they need to succeed at whatever path they choose," Smit concludes.

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