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How Minnesota’s community and technical colleges tailor their offerings to the needs of the (future) workforce

The process involves not only creating new programs, but also recognizing when old programs are no longer relevant to the modern economy.

Saint Paul College has created not only new training programs that employers desperately need, but closed down older programs that are no longer pertinent in the labor market.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

Community and technical colleges have a long history of tweaking the programs and courses they offer to respond to the needs of the labor market. As a coming wave of baby boomer retirements threatens to create labor shortages across all kinds of industries, such reassessment becomes more important than ever.

Cognizant of the changing labor force, institutions like Dunwoody College of Technology and Saint Paul College have in recent years not only created new training programs that employers desperately need, but closed down older ones that are no longer pertinent in the labor market.

Rich Wagner, Dunwoody College of Technology president, and Rassoul Dastmozd, Saint Paul College president, said their schools are connected with employer partners, community organizations and public schools. They’re also keeping a close watch on the labor market to ensure that their students’ classroom experience mirrors workforce expectations.

Classrooms mirror the workforce

Wagner put it this way: “What we do on a regular basis is that we survey the workforce to take a look at where the jobs of the future are going to be. What kinds of programs are going to be needed?”

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Once an area of need is identified, for example, administrators then organize a group of employers and educators from the industry to find out more about employers’ needs. From there, the school designs the program, creating a pipeline from classroom to the workforce.

Such a process resulted in a new program, facilities management, which Dunwoody has recently created. The program is for individuals seeking to learn the ropes to manage and maintain buildings, a post that requires administrative skills as well as knowledge of mechanical and electrical systems. Wagner noted that the workforce needs facility managers, but there haven’t been enough schools providing the training and credentials required to meet that demand.

The private, nonprofit college is one of many higher education institutions that are watching the labor market as it also works to find ways to create classrooms that supply the talent needed in solving the workforce shortage.

Among them is Saint Paul College, which offers more than 50 career and technical education programs in manufacturing, construction, transportation, information technology, health services and others.

St. Paul College welding student
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Saint Paul College graduates include auto body repairers, technicians, plumbers, electro-mechanics, machine operators and welders.

Like Dunwoody, the school also creates — or ends — certain occupational programs in part based on workforce-demand analysis and recommendations from partner employers, educators as well as state and local government agencies. “We just cannot simply decide one morning that we’re going to offer a program,” said Dastmozd. “We have to go through a labor demand analysis and need-based analysis in the community.”

Those analyses include looking into the industries and their relevance in the labor market as well as the kinds of wages and benefit they offer. Based on the outcome, the school creates or ends career programs.  

For example, in 2011, Dastmozd said, the school had offered a watch-making program. After internal and external evaluations, he realized that there wasn’t a demand for the program in the workforce. It was then discontinued.

Addressing workforce shortage

Of course, it isn’t news that community and technical colleges have been providing vocational programs long before the current workforce shortage crisis struck.

But because these colleges have established programs that are tailored to provide career training in the most coveted industries, college leaders say that they’re indeed well positioned to bridge the workforce shortage gap.  

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Saint Paul College, for example, has partnerships with the city’s public and charter schools, employers, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. With about 11,500 students currently enrolled, the school has many programs that train students in various industries, including manufacturing, technology, construction and health services.  In fiscal year 2016, according to data the college provided to MinnPost, the school awarded nearly 1,600 associate degrees, certificates and diplomas in career and technical education programs.

Those graduates include auto body repairers, technicians, plumbers, electro-mechanics, machine operators and welders. Of those, the data show, more than 85 percent landed jobs in their professions “immediately” after graduation.  

In fact, in many cases, students in the career and technical education programs secure jobs before they even graduate, said Allen Smith, a machining instructor at Saint Paul College. “After their first semester, a lot of people are starting to work,” he added. “Most of our people are working full-time during their second semester.”

What’s more, many of the technical jobs pay decent wages within two years or less. A plumber, for instance, makes up to $170,000 a year; a nurse, $80,000; a medical laboratory technician, $60,000.

The need for more collaboration

The efforts of community colleges to refine their offerings are all well and good, according to Emma Corrie, strategic workforce initiatives director for the office of Gov. Mark Dayton, but she’s worried that the schools are neglecting one important area of employment: the public sector.

“I don’t think community colleges do enough to woo us as employers,” she said. “Community colleges must keep in mind that … the government sector is a huge, huge employer.”

Community and technical colleges, she said, aren’t often involved in the state’s strategic initiatives meant to recruit targeted populations to state jobs. As one of the largest employers in Minnesota, Corrie added, the state government has all types of employment opportunities — and yet it struggles to attract enough workers.

One way to fix that problem, she said, is to forge a consistent collaboration between community organizations, technical colleges and public and private employers.

Such collaboration would lead to several things, she said. First, nonprofit organizations would recruit students and offer them basic workplace skills — like proper communications, time management and teamwork — and prepare them for college. Then, colleges would take them in to offer the education and credentials required to perform a certain job.

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Meanwhile, Corrie added, the state government would get involved in these colleges’ curriculum formation processes, help them get training equipment and provide students with paid internships.

“If you think about the Department of Transportation, it’s an agency of 5,000 people,” she said. “More than 50 percent of those jobs do not require a four-year degree. A lot of people don’t know that. So technical colleges have a great role to play in government jobs at all levels.”

However, not all community and technical colleges have close ties with community partners and employers. And it’s that reason Corrie thinks that two-year colleges should rethink their recruitment and teaching strategies.

“We need a model that ties the success and the reach that our community organizations have … and tie that to the technical expertise and the classroom expertise that our community colleges bring,” Corrie said. “That would be a very, very attractive, hybrid model for us as employers.”