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Community colleges band together for workforce development

Community colleges band together for workforce development

FMCC, SCCC, others will try to build skills lacking in workers starting their careers
Community colleges band together for workforce development
FMCC President Dustin Swanger speaks Tuesday at the launch of the Capital Community Career Coalition.
Photographer: John Cropley/Gazette Business Editor

TROY — The five community colleges serving the greater Capital Region announced a partnership Tuesday to create better career paths for students.

The Capital Community College Career Coalition, or C5, seeks to have a greater combined impact doing what each of the five has been doing on its own to greater or lesser degree for decades: identifying and addressing gaps that some students show in broad skills for all jobs, and creating partnerships with local employers and workforce development agencies to fine-tune skills for specific jobs.

On board are Adirondack, Columbia-Greene, Fulton-Montgomery, Hudson Valley and Schenectady County community colleges. The cooperative agreement took about 18 months to finalize, and the presidents formally signed it Tuesday morning at HVCC in Troy. Joining them were several private-industry partners who recognize (and suffer from) the shortage of workforce-ready personnel, particularly for manufacturing and production jobs.

Schenectady County Community College President Steady Moono and Fulton-Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger each said there is a dual challenge: training students to be ready or nearly ready to step into the increasingly technical jobs that employers have trouble filling, as well as convincing students (and their parents) that these are good jobs worth pursuing.

“That’s a struggle we all face,” Moono said, of his fellow college administrators. 

When they think of “industry,” he explained, many parents still think of heavy, dirty work — the smokestacks of yesteryear. This is more accurate in the Third World, said Moono, a native of Zambia, but the “pick and shovel labor” stereotype of industrial jobs persists in the United States as well.

“There’s really a misunderstanding, a misconception of what manufacturing is today,” he said.

The very nature of the problem C5 is trying to address — lack of technical skills — indicates many modern industrial jobs are heavily computerized and mechanized.

“In the 1950s, it was labor-intensive,” Swanger said. He recalls an older worker telling him: “When I first started working in manufacturing, I was told leave my brain at the door. Now I’m asked to bring my mind into the plant to make it better.”

But today’s parents still remember their own parents’ and grandparents’ experiences, Swanger said.

“Right now, when you talk to parents, their reaction generally is, ‘I don’t want my kid to work in manufacturing.’”

One of the private-industry partners attending Tuesday’s ceremony was Tim Bartlett, senior vice president of Townsend Leather, a 170-employee leather finishing company in Johnstown.

He estimated Townsend has interviewed 400 people to fill its last 40 job openings. The people submitting applications lacked skills, experience and sometimes even the basic drive to come to work and do a job well.

“In the day-to-day operations, we’re struggling to find labor or even office help,” Bartlett said. 

For the past 10 years, Townsend has resorted to training entry-level hires, but that’s a difficult model for a small employer to follow, Bartlett said: “We can’t operate a business and train people.”

He’s hoping the C5 initiative will send some better-qualified job candidates his way.

“I’m optimistic that it’s coming together because that’s the only way it can sustain,” he said.

Swanger recalled his prior role as dean for workforce development and technical education at Monroe County Community College in Rochester, where there was, at the time, a regional shortage of workers skilled in tooling and machining.

Employers were complaining of a lack of personnel, yet existing training programs were underutilized.

One of the steps the college took was to create a video presentation on what workday life is like in a modern manufacturing setting, narrated by workers themselves. It helped prospective students (and their parents) overcome doubts about the profession, and enrollment in the machining and tooling program gradually increased from 50 to 300, Swanger said.

The five community colleges that make up C5 can already list 100 certification, degree and workforce development programs they’ve created on their own over the years -- everything from culinary arts to cybersecurity to craft beer brewing. The hope, Moono said, is that the colleges will have greater impact together as C5 than as five separate entities. It is, to his knowledge, the first such consortium created by colleges in New York.

Next up for C5 is a Nov. 2 summit that will bring together members of the academic, labor, legislative and non-profit and for-profit business communities.

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