Community Colleges: Affordable Education to Workforce Training

It’s been more than a century since the first public community, or junior, college opened its doors in the United States. When community colleges began, they were meant to be the first two years of the university experience for those who were thinking about continuing. But now, the comprehensive community college system has an occupational mission as well as a transfer role.

Throughout their history, yet even more so today, community colleges have been critical to facilitating effective school-to-work systems. In this role, community colleges are, and will continue to be, essential partners in the development and implementation of workforce training programs that meet the skills and needs of employers.

Two community colleges with successful and growing workforce training programs — Maui Community College and South Texas College — are featured here as representatives of the important role community colleges are taking on to prepare students for transition to the workforce.

Maui Community College

The workforce challenges of small islands can differ significantly from those of urban and continental settings, according to Clyde Sakamoto, chief executive officer of the Maui campus. Islands, like many isolated rural communities, face unique requirements. Often, workforce needs must be intimately connected to education and training as identified by employers. Maui Community College (MCC), an integral part of the University of Hawaii system, serves one of America’s unique geographical settings, the tri-isle County of Maui. The islands of Maui, Molokai, and Lanai are populated by about 140,000 residents. To extend access to the remotest communities of these islands, MCC continues to create outreach education centers.

Molokai and Lanai islands — as well as the Maui communities of Hana and Kihei — have been connected to the Kahului main campus by a microwave and fiber-optic interactive instructional television system.

Delivering access to higher education in economically effective ways represents both tradition and necessity in Maui County, said Sakamaoto. With a financial history of receiving the least amount of state operational resources for higher education on a per capita county resident among the four counties of the state, MCC required continually resourceful strategies to survive and grow. While scarcity in operational funding persisted until the last legislative session, capital funding for constructing six significant structures doubled the square footage of learning space on campus. With buildings, but without funds to offer increased services and programs, MCC faced the withering challenge of mounting electricity rates compounded by fuel cost adjustments over the last two years.

Sakamoto said that during the same period of these financial trials, Hawaii generally, and Maui especially, experienced economic vitality such that Maui County’s unemployment rates declined to less than three percent. The prospect of ubiquitous, albeit generally modestly compensated jobs; the comparatively highest cost of living in the state and country; and declining MCC capacity to support student futures led to a growing institutional orientation towards sustainability.

There were a number of key priorities that stemmed from MCC’s Strategic Plan. These included retrofitting facilities for more efficient energy use, providing incentives to instructional programs to move towards self-sufficiency, pursuing alternative energy sources, and focusing generally on sustainability as an institutional and island-wide agenda.

Among these initiatives, Automotive Technology succeeded first in achieving the operational self-support benchmark. With income from the services it provides and the donated cars that students restore and resell, the program supports its supplies and tools, and has begun to contribute to an equipment replacement fund. To stimulate and reinforce this direction, the college secured grant resources to acquire large and expensive equipment to keep the automotive education program abreast of developments in the field.

Sakamoto noted that the college administration and foundation have also joined the program leadership to enlist contributions from the private sector, including automobile dealerships, car rental agencies, and bus and trucking companies for high-cost equipment needs. The college attributes the program’s self-support to the leadership of Program Coordinator Thomas Hussey. The Automotive Technology program’s ability to demonstrate its goal of supporting itself, thereby limiting its reliance on state and college resources for faculty salaries, and simultaneously moving towards excellence, resonates with industry partners and provides the mechanics for a promising future.

The template for the automotive program prompted the Humanities faculty to ask what strategy might generate revenues for one its disciplines. Music faculty member Dr. Robert Wehrman challenged the college to create an audio studio to permit him to teach students to produce CDs. This development resulted in music students selling their CDs at Borders Books and contributing money back to the school in the first year of its operations. The relationship between student interest in technical programs as well as academic disciplines and their prospective economic benefit offer intriguing educational and career development insights and opportunities.

In the future, agriculture, culinary arts, dental assisting, and other programs offer possibilities for revenue generation, leading towards an increasing level of self-sufficiency, according to Sakamoto. The modest instructional resources that were historically allocated to maintain the programs could now permit programs to excel.

For more information on MCC’s programs, Dr. Sakamoto can be reached at [email protected]

South Texas College

Since its inception in 1993, South Texas College (STC) has grown from 1,000 to more than 17,000 students, and from a faculty and staff of 267 to 1,489. The college has also grown from one campus to five campuses and centers. STC has campuses in McAllen, Weslaco, and Rio Grande City as well as the Dr. Ramiro R. Casso Nursing and Allied Health Center in McAllen, and the Technology Center in south McAllen near the Foreign Trade Zone.

STC is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to award the Bachelor of Applied Technology, the Associate of Arts, the Associate of Sciences, and the Associate of Applied Sciences Degrees and Certificates. It is also approved for veterans’ educational training in Certificate and Associate of Applied Sciences Degree programs by the Texas Education Agency.

The Partnership for Business and Industry Training at STC offers customized training to area businesses, industries, and the community according to Wanda Garza, executive director for workforce and resource development for STC. Training programs are tailored to the clients’ needs in content, schedule, and location. Training programs are designed for lifelong learners who want to upgrade their skills, change careers, or seek personal enrichment.

According to Garza, STC has serviced more than 400 employers through customized training. The school works very closely with the Greater McAllen Alliance (five economic development corporations), the McAllen Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), the Mission Economic Development Authority, Inc., (MEDA), the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), the Pharr Economic Development Corporation (PEDC), and Weslaco Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to leverage training funds for new and existing employers. The school also works with the city of Mercedes and the Alamo Economic Development Corporation.

STC has leveraged over $5.4 million in Skills Development Funds through the Texas Workforce Commission. These funds have provided customized training for 14,992 new and incumbent workers. The college has been awarded 12 grants since 1997.

STC identifies employer training needs through the Greater McAllen Alliance, WorkFORCE Solutions targeted industry analysis, and employer surveys. In total, STC has provided workforce training and continuing education to more than 36,000 residents. The employer satisfaction surveys have given the college an A in customer satisfaction, and STC prides themselves in providing premier employer training services.

Garza notes these additional successes of STC’s Partnership for Business and Industry Training.

• The South Texas Manufacturing Association (STMA) worked with the college to implement a Rio Grande Valley Apprenticeship Training Alliance because a shortage of journeymen was affecting manufacturers’ ability to sustain or expand their operations. The Alliance secured $5 million from U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) to establish a regional apprenticeship training program. This initiative included a Youth Career Pathway for Precision Manufacturing Technology.
• The city of McAllen has awarded nine grants ($1.4 million) for employers’ customized training. These funds provided the funds needed to leverage STC’s first USDOL-H-1B grant for the apprenticeship program. The funds also helped the college in implementing a Facility Maintenance customized training program.
• STC was awarded six grants totaling $4.2 million through the Texas Workforce Commission to serve TANF clients and food stamp recipients. The college has trained over 2,272 participants since 1998.
• WorkFORCE Solutions has awarded 15 grants totaling $4.3 million and partnered with the college, the South Texas Manufacturing Association, and Region One Education Service Center to develop and implement the Leadership Academy. The Leadership Academy has provided leadership training to over 67 employers and trained 388 entry-level and experienced supervisors.

WorkFORCE Solutions also partnered with STC and three employers (Ticketmaster, Penncro, and T-Mobile) to develop a“Skills Credentialing Training Model” for customized training. This program will set the standard for customized training at STC and will be fully implemented this fall.

For more information on these programs, please contact South Texas College at 956/872-2770.

Community colleges have made significant contributions to preparing America’s current workforce, and will continue to have a greater role in preparing the future workforce. Their offerings of low-cost programs, response to workplace needs, and flexibility in providing instruction are the keys to their increasing value and success.