More schools link programs with specific job requirements

By Mary Mogan Edwards and Jennifer Smola
The Columbus Dispatch

Rafael Garcia graduated from Westland High School in 2016 eager to start a career. He considered the University of Cincinnati for engineering, but didn't want to borrow and spend the money it would require. Besides, he said, "I wanted to get into the workforce as soon as possible."

Kevin Theuer takes part in a Columbus State program in which students work part-time at participating employers while earning associate degrees in a related field. [Fred SquillanteDispatch]

Enter the Modern Manufacturing Work-Study Program at Columbus State Community College. It has helped Garcia, 19, land a $16-per-hour job and a good shot at a full-time position if he earns his associate degree in electro-mechanical engineering.

It's an example of colleges' growing role as employment matchmakers — linking students seeking careers with industries that need capable workers.

Because they're smaller and more nimble, community colleges can move fast to tailor programs to in-demand fields and even specific companies. Experts say it's a role they'll play more and more in the future.

But many private, four-year colleges, such as Otterbein University in Westerville, also are considering ways to prepare students for jobs at businesses and industries that have openings.

Several central Ohio employers, including Honda and Worthington Industries, participate in Columbus State's Modern Manufacturing program. Garcia and two classmates spend two days a week in class and three days on the job at PK Controls, a Plain City maker of automation controls that is desperate for employees with the training and education that Garcia is getting.

"You can't do these jobs without training," said Tim VanVoorhis, general manager of PK Controls. The company's business is booming, but finding qualified employees is hard. "I could hire 10 right now and have them busy next week," VanVoorhis said. "The only thing slowing growth is training."

Employers used to provide such training, but fewer these days can afford to offer it on the job. PK does some of its own training, VanVoorhis said, but Columbus State's curriculum in electro-mechanical engineering matches the company's needs, so "it works out perfect."

That's not entirely coincidental; VanVoorhis holds his own associate degree from Columbus State and serves on its employer advisory board, so he had a hand in shaping the course.

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"For so many years, we've said, 'To be successful, you have to have a four-year degree,' " said Jeff Spain, coordinator of the Columbus State program. "With this, you're going to be able to graduate (with an associate degree) and go to $50,000 and $60,000 (annual pay) jobs with no debt, at 19 years old."

The workplace component kicks in after three semesters (including one summer) of classroom work, which includes advanced engineering, Spain said.

The program came together in 2012 and 2013, when Honda convened other manufacturing companies that couldn't find the multi-craft maintenance technicians they needed to grow their businesses. "Businesses were actually borrowing employees from each other — or poaching," Spain said.

PK Controls general manager Tim VanVoorhis helps students gain relevant work experience. [Fred SquillanteDispatch]
For PK, recruiting used to be a "hunt-and-peck" proposition of visiting colleges and hoping to find a match, VanVoorhis said. "Now, we're trying to funnel them here," through programs such as the one at Columbus State.

Without tenured faculty, community colleges typically have more flexibility to adjust in response to industry needs, said Lisa Lattuca, a professor of higher education at the University of Michigan who studies higher education curriculum, teaching and learning.

“Community colleges have historically been closer to occupational sectors and have responded more quickly to changes in those sectors than many colleges and universities,” Lattuca said. “In part, that’s because the structure of the community college allows for that.”

But that doesn’t mean liberal-arts schools aren’t taking a crack at better workforce development.

The Point at Otterbein University is an innovation center that houses local businesses and nonprofits to connect education with business and industry. Businesses such as Nestle and PolymerOhio that lease space in the center also must provide students with internships or in-depth projects, said Erin Bender, executive director of the center.

“Every university, whether they’re private or public, is trying to reinvent themselves in higher education because you have to stay relevant and you need to be affordable,” Bender said. “We aren’t afraid to go out to industry and say, ‘Tell us what you need.' "

That doesn’t mean abandoning Otterbein’s liberal-arts mission, but, “we’ve decided to blow away the stigma that workforce development really just means a vocational school or a community college," Bender said.

“Otterbein, in order for us to stay relevant, will have to continue to be true to our history, our mission, but also be recognizing what’s cutting edge, what’s relevant and always be striving to make sure we’re training our students for those jobs," she said.

Still, as tuition at four-year institutions has ballooned, community colleges increasingly are serving as on-ramps to a bachelor's degree. State policy has encouraged this with programs such as College Credit Plus, which allows high-school and even middle-school students to earn college credits at participating institutions while still in high school.

Community colleges are likely to play a bigger part in Ohioans' post-high-school educations in the coming years, in large part because students can save a lot of money starting at a two-year school and transferring to a four-year college for a bachelor's degree. Soon, students might not even have to transfer.

A new measure in the Ohio budget allows Ohio community colleges to create applied bachelor’s degree programs.

The programs will be more narrowly focused than existing bachelor's of arts or sciences degrees and would prepare students for specific skills, said Jeff Robinson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

Students Joshua Seibel, left, and Rafael Garcia  work at PK Controls, which assembles control panels for robotics used by Honda. They are looking at the insides of a control panel made at the company. [Fred SquillanteDispatch]
The budget provision was designed to help fill skills gaps and address workforce needs that traditional four-year colleges aren't serving, said state Department of Higher Education Chancellor John Carey.

Potential programs might include land surveying, unmanned aerial systems or culinary arts, Carey said.

Interested community colleges must go through an application process. They also must have an agreement in place with a regional business or industry to train students in an in-demand field for employment upon their successful completion of the program.

“It’s another pathway,” Carey said. “Students…know that if they complete their program, there’s an employer at the other end.”

Ohio's community colleges also have joined with public and private four-year schools to offer "2-plus-2" programs. Students taking a prescribed set of courses and earning a certain grade-point average can be assured they'll be admitted to a participating college or university and that their credits will transfer. They save thousands of dollars on tuition for their first two years, and in many cases, they can earn scholarships to help pay for the second two.

Encouraged by state policy under Gov. John Kasich, Ohio colleges and universities are likely to develop more direct partnerships with businesses. The state's operating subsidy for the 14 state universities and 23 community colleges, while relatively flat in the past few years, is still 20 percent lower, in inflation-adjusted terms, than the 2009 pre-recession peak.

What money that the state does grant is divvied up according to how well schools perform as measured by graduation rates, how many freshmen return as sophomores and other factors. Those incentives likely will strengthen the movement toward reducing costs and getting students into decent jobs as quickly and with as little expense as possible.

The goal, Carey said, is to integrate field-specific knowledge with the soft skills that will serve students in any capacity, such as critical thinking, communication and teamwork.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we’re going to have a cookie-cutter-workforce-type system, but we want students to have the skills, because we know jobs are going to change very quickly depending on how the economy changes.”

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