In an academic setting, many of us would like to say we are ‘innovative,’ and certainly the technologies we discover can be. However, in terms of curricula, few schools are capable of flexibility, much less innovation.
At the same time, the industries that look to us to provide their workforce need help. Now. They cannot wait for institutional changes that can take years. That’s particularly true in manufacturing, where innovation is an essential element not only of growth, but of survival.
Community colleges can have a unique relationship with industry, one that allows insight into the constant change and market pressures they face. Community colleges also have special relationships with their communities, allowing them to respond to local needs and ensure that citizens are prepared for changes in the workforce. Those insights, coupled with the flexibility of non-credit corporate training programs, can be the solutions-driven engine used to help industry meet its workforce development challenges.
To give one example, in November of 2011, in a meeting with local mayors and leadership from Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis, Tennessee, a company communicated that they could not find workers with skill requirements for entry-level work. They were considering hiring outside our community.
We found that alternative unacceptable. Within two months, we assessed the company’s needs, we built a curriculum based on that need, we recruited students, and we conducted a successful course that helped the company meet its recruitment goals, hiring local talent.
Recognizing the ‘boom’ in manufacturing jobs across our region, Southwest has taken its success from the January 2012 class and formalized an Industrial Readiness Training (IRT) program, pulling in partners such as the Workforce Investment Network, along with industry and government leaders.
This program is an intensive 49-hour course that takes place over a three-week period. Students learn interpersonal skills such as communications and team building. In complement, students learn mechanical skills such as basic math, LEAN concepts, and machinery. The goal is to acclimate students to a professional working environment in which they can be more receptive to learning job-specific skills.
As an essential component, each company acts as our partner in creating the curriculum for the IRT cohort. The employees of the companies tell us the skills on which we should focus, they visit the classes and talk to the students. They see the progress firsthand.
The impact is obvious. From January to August 2012, the program placed over 150 participants in livable-wage jobs. After hiring over 50 IRT graduates, one local manufacturing company was so impressed with the students’ abilities, the executive leadership increased the starting wage of IRT graduates by two dollars / hour.
Most poignant, in my mind, is what the students have told me after they complete the course and begin a new career. One graduate, a 48-year old man, told me “I’ve never been able to get out of poverty all my life; this class has allowed me to change my attitude, to see that it was about me, not them, and to finally make a livable income for my family.”
Another graduate told me, “I just got my kids back last week because I can now support them. This program has changed my life, and generations of my family to come.”
If community colleges can lead innovation in a way that responds to the real-time needs of industry, the result will be stronger companies, more jobs, and better schools.
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