Area community colleges are working with businesses to help fill the gap in workforce skills
Greater Philadelphia’s manufacturing companies have a problem.
They have jobs available, but too few folks are qualified to fill them.
Just ask Kip Anthony, president of Horsh-am-based manufacturer EFE Labs that’s been in business for 40 years. Anthony said the issue starts before students even graduate from college because they’re not thinking about the manufac-turing industry as an option during and after they leave school.
“A lot of younger people come into the aca-demic channel thinking about tech in terms of software, apps and a service sector,” he said. “Not a lot of them have thought about manufacturing. Society is out of sync about where manufacturing is at. There’s a disconnect.”
Anthony isn’t alone. Companies nationwide are struggling to find skilled labor in today’s manu-facturing economy, according to a report released this month by accounting firm WeiserMazars.
“How we interface with this world has changed, yet we still have the need for aircrafts, cars and all of these things,” Anthony added. “But our rela-tionship has changed with those somewhat.”
The solution might be just down the road. Community colleges, in Greater Philadelphia and nationwide, are shaking off the old “13th grade” stigma and increasing filling the needed role of education and training for a changed manufac-turing world.
The two-year colleges are working directly with local businesses like EFE Labs to fill that skills gap, not only in educating students but also in retraining and “uptraining” current employees.
“The workforce development area nationally has moved to the side, and now there’s a skills gap,” according to Kevin Pollock, president of Montgomery County Community College, who works with EFE Labs and other companies to develop a skilled workforce. “We’re running low on skilled workers.”
Mind the gap
The skills gap can be attributed to a number of things, including an aging workforce that had filled those positions for decades; jobs left unfilled by people who focused on four-year degrees; and businesses and community colleges not putting enough money into training because of the lack of need, among others, Pollock said.
Parents have also steered children away from manufacturing — about only 35 percent of parents encouraged their children to consider a career in manufacturing, according to an October 2012 Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute survey.
“It is imperative to change this public per-ception in order to widen the pool of candidates and attract the essential talent required in today’s highly technical and skilled manufacturing environment,” WeiserMazars noted in their report.
This is where community colleges come into play.
With President Obama advocating free com-munity college education and with concerns over rising education costs, the institutions have been able to throw off the old assumption that cours-es are of a lesser quality than four-year college courses.
“In the last few years they’ve been garner-ing much attention, much more than they usu-ally do in that national spotlight,” said Martha M. Parham, a senior vice president at the American Association of Community Colleges. “They’re the worst-kept secret in America — what community colleges can do for the country.”
Community colleges are paying close attention to what businesses need.
“The big piece is really finding out what the needs are of the businesses in our county, and that’s a lot of businesses,” Montgomery County Community College’s Pollock said. “Sometimes it’s training new employees but also retraining employees already there to enhance their skills. It’s a variety.”
Along with continuing its work with local businesses, Montgomery County Community College is reinvesting in its workforce develop-ment department. It’s in the process of hiring a new executive director to lead the college’s efforts in meeting the county’s needs.
Community colleges are doing what they can to show that manufacturing today is “not your father’s manufacturing company,” said Jerry Parker, president of Delaware County Commu-nity College. “They’re safe, and you’re doing high-skilled work. If we don’t satisfy these needs, these companies are going to go elsewhere.”
Delaware County Community College last December announced it teamed up with the Manufacturing Alliance of Chester and Delaware Counties to offer tuition-free courses for employ-ees of the alliance’s member organizations.
EFE Labs’ Anthony has had relationships with four-year universities, but he’s found community colleges are more flexible and willing to listen to business’ needs.
“I do like the agility they have,” Anthony said. “They seem to be willing to take a look and make pragmatic alterations where it makes sense. You’ll see a consensus with local manufacturers and industries in general; there’s an agility there.”
The region’s community colleges see it as a partnership.
“I view it not so much about what we’re doing but how we respond to the needs of those employ-ers that we partner with in the Delaware Valley area,” said Donald A. Borden, president of Cam-den County College.
Power plant supplier Holtec International is building a production facility on the Camden waterfront, which would bring nearly 400 jobs to the area, and it’s working with Camden Coun-ty College — just another example of one business working with its area community college.
“As opposed to us saying, ‘Here’s what we offer,’ we’re responding appropriately to those needs,” Borden said. “It’s an open-ended process. We are very responsive, and that is our intention.”
Flexibility and agility
Every community college is going to be different; because they exist in part to serve the commu-nities they’re in, their work will depend on the needs of the local business community.
Bucks County, for example, is an area of small businesses in the health care and manufacturing industries, among others.
The Bucks County Community College this fall will be launching a new medical lab technician program, which is a direct response to hospitals’ need for skilled workers.
“We continue to work [with businesses] and see if we’re meeting their needs,” President Stephanie Shanblatt said. “That’s our goal — to meet employers’ needs. ... We really have to have the end goal in mind, and we work hard at that.” It’s a two-way street, too.
“We are partners,” said Donald Guy Generals, president of Community College of Philadelphia. “It’s critically important that businesses view themselves as equal partners in terms of help-ing devise curriculums and programs that are real economic opportunities for students once they graduate.”
Companies are listening; they are becoming part of the educational process now to ensure there will be a skilled work force right after graduation.
“You have to have a good interface with com-munity colleges and local academic institutions to help them understand, as a local business, what you need to have in those students,” Antho-ny said. “It helps them tweak and become more effective. Some of them have been successful in that regard and have done a super job.”
If companies don’t take the time to work with community colleges and students and talk about their needs, it could affect the efficiency of the companies.
“Finding a qualified worker may take more effort in getting them up to speed and inter-facing with things,” Anthony said. “[It causes] a little more lag time before full productivity. It costs money and it may inhibit your flexibility to quickly surge. What if you have a spike in service? It’s a competitive problem.”
At Bucks County, local businesses come to the classrooms to help students understand what certain jobs entail — what students would be doing when they’re employed, and it helps them dis-cover where they want to work.
“We have about a 94 percent placement rate [after students graduate,]” Shanblatt said. “That’s terrific, because by the time we get to graduation day, they already have offers from companies.”
‘Let’s do this’
The Philadelphia region’s community colleges, collectively, continue to expand their collabora-tions to bridge that workforce disconnect.
“As a region, we sat down with employers and said, ‘Let’s do this,’” said Karen P. Kozachyn, dean of Workforce Development and Community Edu-cation at Delaware County Community College. “Employers are driving it, that’s how community colleges work. We very rarely build something in a silo. Our leadership understands the value of incorporating businessesinto every conversation to make sure our curriculum is relevant, and that the equipment replicates what students will find in the field, so they’re not learning on something that’s outdated or not used.”
The most important thing to remember about community colleges is that they each have an arm that focuses on the local and regional needs.
“We’re lucky enough to be part of a region that is very active and collaborative,” Kozachyn said.
Six institutes make up a 20-year-old consor-tium called the Collegiate Consortium for Work-force and Economic Development: Bucks Coun-ty Community College, Camden County College, Community College of Philadelphia, Delaware County Community College, Montgomery County Community College and Drexel University.
The consortium identifies the region’s needs, using each institution’s strengths.
“I’m not confined to my own school; I’m con-fined to the talents of the faculty and subject matter experts, which allows employers to have endless resources,” Kozachyn said. “It makes the approach different in this region. There’s not many other regions in the country that have a unique infrastructure.”
The consortium in June this year announced a partnership with Peco on a natural gas work-force development initiative — The Gas Distribu-tion Pipeline Mechanic Introduction Program — to provide students hands-on experience for entry-level employment in the natural gas indus-try. Students will earn an operator qualified cer-tification upon completion.
“We have a domestic supply of natural gas right here in Pennsylvania that can attract jobs, support families and lift the regional economy for genera-tions to come,” Craig White, president and CEO of Philadelphia Gas Works, which is also work-ing to create the curriculum, said in an earlier statement. “Demand is growing and our compa-nies need trained, capable, professional employ-ees. We need them now, and we’re going to need them far into the future. This program helps address that need.”
It’s estimated that over 600 workers are need-ed to repair and replace distribution pipelines in the region over the next several years, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.
One initiative the consortium is working on is a regional apprenticeship program in manu-facturing called the NTMA Tri-state Apprentice-ship Program, or NTAP, in partnership with the National Tooling and Machining Association.
The consortium is developing a competency-based curriculum that will span 11 counties in Greater Philadelphia.
“Our aim through this apprenticeship ini-tiative is to break this vicious circle by at once breaking the ‘dirty, dark and dangerous’ stigma attached to manufacturing, while showing the excellent career opportunities that exist within the industry,” Kozachyn said. “We will attract tal-ented candidates, vet them for markers of indus-try success, give them a high-level overview of the industry, get them employed and offer the pos-sibility of advanced accreditation or degree for those that are motivated to pursue it.”
The region already has the agencies or pro-grams required to institute the initiative and make it successful.
“The agencies or programs just need to be linked together and communicate with one another to operate in unison, not independently, as they have for decades, in many cases,” Kozach-yn said.
University connection Four-year universities and community colleges are also bolstering their relationships with each other through various means, including transfer agreements.
Other universities have taken it a step further, like Rowan University and its partners Rowan College at Gloucester County (formerly Glouces-ter County College) and Rowan College at Burling-ton County (formerly Burlington County College).
The institutions this year announced a “3+1” program unique to New Jersey that enables stu-dents to spend three years at one of the two com-munity colleges and just one at the main campus as students move toward a bachelor’s degree. It will begin this September.
The goal is to lessen the financial burden on students.
The estimated cost of a bachelor’s degree through the program would be about $25,000, about a half of what commuters would spend at the state university and a quarter they would pay at a number of other private schools.
“This is the fastest, best and most economic way of significantly providing access and affordability to all the students without taxing the state,” Row-an President Ali A. Houshmand said. “That’s why we are so particular in expanding our relation-ships with county colleges. Through relations, we want to turn those county colleges as desti-nations for certain groups of the population who want a four-year degree but can’t afford the main campus. These county colleges have the capacity, infrastructure and qualified faculty members.”
Most recently, Delaware County Community College and Pennsylvania State University in July signed an agreement enabling qualified gradu-ates of the community college to transfer to Penn State.
The agreement would also save students mon-ey on their way to a four-year degree.