How to make students employable

To make students more employable, community colleges must engage with industry and take “a hard look at what the job market is telling them,” writes James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan. He co-chaired the American Association of Community Colleges’ Implementation Team 5, which worked on closing the nation’s skills gap.  

Community colleges should develop close ties with local industries, the team recommends. That includes researching industry trends, hiring “instructors from the industries — who can bring with them not just experience but also contacts — and maintaining ties with students who land jobs in these industries.” 

Many businesses “value credentials designed to indicate mastery of a particular skill or subject matter as much as or more than a formal degree,” the team found.

At Michigan’s Macomb Community College (MCC), where I serve as president, we feature a production operator program that provides students with a basic orientation to manufacturing work, teaching the skills they need to obtain a job in the field. After students complete our program and secure an entry-level position, they are invited back to MCC to take for-credit classes focused on specific skill sets, all of this dependent on the needs of their employer.

“The days of comprehensive community colleges that offer a vast number of options are drawing to a close,” writes Jacobs. “Instead, community college should offer fewer options based on the needs of local and regional labor markets.”

Job training bill links colleges, employers

Federal  job training dollars would go to colleges that collaborate with employers on workforce credentials, under a bill by Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, and Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican. The bill includes a pay-for-performance pilot, said Portman at an Opportunity Nation summit.

Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit known for its national index on economic opportunity, has endorsed the bill.  So have the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Skills Association.

The federal government spends $15 billion a year on 46 different job training programs, said Portman. The legislation seeks a better return on the investment, he said.

. . .  the two senators give two-year colleges and other career-focused institutions “priority access” to dollars for job training in the legislation, which is dubbed the Careers Through Responsive, Efficient and Effective Retraining (CAREER) Act.

“We’d like to include community colleges more,” Portman said.

The bill includes performance-based funding elements, including a pilot program that would pay colleges on the back end for their job training programs based on outcomes like job placement and earnings. That approach “rewards results and penalizes complacency,” Portman has said.

The American Association of Community Colleges hasn’t taken a position on the Bennet-Portman bill. The association supports a  bill by Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat,  that prioritizes funding for portable, industry-recognized credentials. It does not include performance funding.

Des Moines Area Community College is a model for involving employers in job training, according to Opportunity Nation.  Employers serve on advisory boards for all academic programs. That ensures students get relevant training, said the college’s president, Rob Denson. “They will hire our two-year IT grads at $65,000 a pop,” Denson said.

Employers: Grads aren’t prepared for work

Most employers say college graduates aren’t prepared for work, reports Bridge That Gap: Analyzing the Student Skill Index, a Chegg survey.  Half of college students said they felt very or completely prepared for work in their field of study. Thirty-nine percent of employers said recent graduates they’d interviewed were well-prepared.

Students overvalue their mastery of “business basics,” according to employers, notes Inside Higher Ed.

Those include “creating a budget or financial goal” and “writing to communicate ideas or explain information clearly” (each show a 22 percentage-point gap), and “organization” (25 percentage points). In the widest gap, at 27 percentage points, 77 percent of students but only half of hiring managers reported preparation for “prioritizing work.”

Students fared the best at “making a decision without having all the facts.” About 47 percent of students said they were prepared to do that, and 37 percent of hiring managers said the same of recent graduates.

More than 90 percent of hiring managers are looking for graduates who’ve shown initiative and leadership. They also look for extracurriculars, internships and work related to applicants’ field of study. Only a third of college graduates have spent time gaining experience in their field.

Chegg also looked at “Office Street Smarts” by asking five questions:

1. Can graduates make a persuasive argument to convince others to adopt their ideas?
2. Can they write to encourage action or make a specific request?
3. Were they able to communicate with authority figures and clients?
4. Can they collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds?
5. Can they complete a project as part of a team?

Again, students “have an over-inflated sense” of their communications and collaboration skills.

STEM graduates were “slightly better prepared” to explain information and solve problems through experimentation, employers said.

‘Not Yet Sold’ on online ed

onlineMany community college students remain skeptical about the value of online learning, according to Not Yet Sold, a new Public Agenda report. Forty-two percent said they’d learned less from online courses than from traditional courses. Thirty-eight percent think online classes are harder to pass than in-person ones. Only 18 percent say they’re easier.

Employers also are skeptical: 56 percent prefer to hire people with traditional college degrees.

Community colleges are adding online courses rapidly. Nearly half of students surveyed are taking at least one online course. However, students have mixed feelings, said Carolin Hagelskamp, the lead researcher.

“What stuck out to me was this feeling around community college students, there was almost a little bit of frustration around these courses,” Hagelskamp said. She said many students believe online courses require more discipline and quite a few said they’re harder to pass. Nearly half said they’re not learning as much as they would in a traditional setting.

Forty-one percent said they would rather take fewer courses online, while 39 percent thought they were taking the right amount of online classes.

Most employers said they’d prefer a job applicant with a degree from an average brick-and-mortar college over someone from a more elite university where they took only online coursework. Forty-nine percent of employers thought online-only students learn less than traditional students; 45 percent thought they learned about the same.

Will employers value your online degree?

Employers value online degrees — in certain circumstances, according to Drexel University Online.

Drexel University Online vs Traditional Degrees

Jobs require more education, training

Employers are demanding more education and technical training, according to a survey of human resource professionals by Achieve and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Compared with 10 years ago, more jobs today require technical and STEM skills and a higher education level, many HR professionals said. That trend will continue, they predicted. By contrast, there are fewer entry-level jobs.

Future administrative and secretarial positions will require more education such as an associate’s degree (said 21 percent of HR professionals) or a post-secondary certificate (said 11 percent);

For salaried, individual contributors and professionals, future positions will require a bachelor’s degree (said 71 percent of HR professionals) or an associate’s degree (said 12 percent);

Skilled laborers such as technicians, mechanics, and foremen will need a specific post-secondary certificate or specific credentials for future jobs (said 31 percent of HR professionals);

While most workers with only a high-school diploma can advance in their workplace, that will be more difficult in the future, HR professionals said.

Health care, manufacturing and government jobs require more education than they did 10 years ago, the survey concluded. In the next three to five years, that trend will extend to high-tech jobs and  professional services.

CCs get $500 million for job training

Community colleges will get $500 million in federal grants to fund job training. The Labor and Education departments will work together on the program, which will focus on  “skills development and employment opportunities in fields such as advanced manufacturing, transportation and health care, as well as science, technology, engineering and math careers through partnerships between training providers and local employers.”

In addition, Jobs for the Future’s Accelerating Opportunity Initiative will give $1.6 million each to Illinois,KansasKentuckyLouisiana and North Carolina to fund adult education and job training.

“Many employers are currently unable to fill well-paying jobs because applicants lack the skills,” says JFF President and CEO Marlene B. Seltzer. “Today’s good jobs require education beyond high school and training that prepares workers with practical skills that employers need. Accelerating Opportunity focuses on educational programs that lead to the credentials workers need to secure a family-sustaining job and long-lasting career opportunities.”

Accelerating Opportunity hopes to create career pathways  leading to “marketable, stackable, credit-bearing credentials” in at least 40 community colleges  by 2014.

Training for energy jobs must match needs

The enthusiasm for “green jobs” will lead to disappointment unless community colleges align alternative energy programs with workforce needs in their area, writes Ellie Ashford on Community College Times.

Research the local market and talk to alternative energy employers before creating a new program, advises Todd Cohen of the American Association of Community College’s SEED (Sustainability, Education and Economic Development) Center.

 While a growing number of community colleges are investing in solar, wind and smart grid technology programs, it might make more sense for some to add alternative energy components to existing programs, such as incorporating alternative fuels into automotive technology programs, Cohen said.

In Michigan, Lansing Community College revised its associate degree in energy management in 2010 when it realized graduates weren’t finding jobs. There’s little solar or wind energy in Michigan, but there are jobs in energy auditing and weatherization. The college now offers an associate degree in alternative energy engineering technologies that prepares graduates to do energy audits.

Hagerstown Community College in Maryland offers an associate degree in alternative energy technology plus a two-year certification in solar and wind energy installation and service.  The college added alternative energy courses to existing programs, such as HVAC, plumbing and electricity. “That allows us to produce people with fundamental skills that are employable in many other industries,” said Anthony Valente, an instructor in industrial and energy technology.

A five-story science and technology building on the HCC campus opened in January with solar and wind systems that are used for teaching and also offset some of the college’s energy costs. The building uses geothermal wells to heat classrooms and has a rainwater retention system for irrigation and non-potable water.
In addition, HCC is building an “energy house,” a residential structure with alternative energy systems that will be used as a laboratory, where students can practice installing solar and geothermal systems, change air flow and conduct energy audits.
The local demand for alternate energy workers is only “moderate,” says Valente, but technicians with an associate degree and experience can earn $25 to $35 an hour.

How employers see IT associate degrees

When employers in Seattle and Detroit look for information technology technicians, they expect applicants with associate degrees to share some characteristics with bachelor’s degree holders, including technical skills and knowledge, thinking skills, communication skills, and discipline, concludes a working paper from the Community College Research Center by Michelle Van Noy and James Jacobs. However, many hiring managers also feared associate degree holders would lack academic ability, initiative or skill compared to techs with four-year degrees.

Employers did not expect associate or bachelor’s degrees to provide information about certain key qualities, including competency in customer service and teamwork, and personal interest in technology.

Employers see higher ed as costly, stodgy

The nation’s higher education system is costly, unaccountable and unwilling to change, say business leaders interviewed for Hiring and Higher Education, a report by Public Agenda for the Committee for Economic Development (CED).

“There are growing and grave concerns about the system’s ability to remain a leader and produce the workforce our future economy demands,” said Steve Farkas, lead author of the Public Agenda report. “Business leaders told us that, if higher education fails to control costs and hold itself accountable for results, our colleges and universities will become less relevant, and our economy will suffer greatly.”

However, the business leaders praised community colleges as no-frills institutions that are able to adapt to new challenges and work with employers on job training.

The widely shared perception is that higher education is highly resistant to change, and that innovation and adaptability are hardly the forte of colleges and the administrators who run them. Some executives talked about experiences they had trying to work with their local colleges only to run up against a “can’t-do” system tied up by committees, paperwork requirements and institutional prerogatives.

“The colleges, as creative as they may be, lack innovation,” said one executive. “They’ve set up a certain structure, tenured staff, and because of that they’re opposed to change.”

Despite the high unemployment rate, it’s difficult to find skilled workers in some fields, the executives said.