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College workforce training programs abundant but still chasing need

MCC student Vincent Owens, left, assembles a tool holder for a drill used in a CNC milling machine with help from his instructor, Anthony McCollough, during a precision machining class.
MCC student Vincent Owens, left, assembles a tool holder for a drill used in a CNC milling machine with help from his instructor, Anthony McCollough, during a precision machining class.

Monroe Community College graduates 60 welding students a year, but that’s still not enough to fill the demand from local companies.

And that’s not a unique situation.

In the 2014-15 school year, 565 people graduated from a variety of advanced manufacturing programs at MCC and from other regional colleges, yet those graduates met just 63.1 percent of the demand for people with those skills. So says “Measuring Middle-Skill Occupational Gaps Within the Western New York Regional Economy,” a September 2017 report compiled by a team of MCC and state and regional economic development programs.

Statistics such as those are likely the reason Gov. Andrew Cuomo cited workforce development as one of the targets for an influx of money in his State of the State address last week.

Cuomo proposed:

  • A consolidated funding application for $175 million in workforce development funds;
  • A new state office of workforce development;
  • A state initiative to copy and scale up a workforce-needs data-mining program at MCC.

All this despite hundreds of classes, courses, certificates and degrees already offered at local community colleges designed to fast-track students to jobs.

One-fifth of MCC’s student body is enrolled in programs designed to give students the degree or certificate they need to start work immediately in fields such as dental hygiene and repair of automated manufacturing equipment, according to Todd M. Oldham, MCC’s vice president of economic development and innovative workforce services. And that’s not counting another 4,500 students in noncredit courses aimed at landing that first job, or adding a skill to gain a promotion or stay current.

Even so, there are fewer students being trained than jobs that await them, he said. Examples include the multidisciplinary area of mechatronics (a gap of 55.2 percent) and tooling and machining (a gap of 85 percent.)

Students and instructor work with a machine at Monroe Community College.
Students and instructor work with a machine at Monroe Community College.

“We need to keep a large supply of readily available men and women to fill the workforce needs at so many different levels,” said Bob Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. The governor’s new attention on the matter gives the state a chance to refocus its efforts, he said. “I think we have to do a better job aligning our workforce development efforts and ensure we’re really measuring what’s really effective.”

Duffy continued, “There are some great programs going on right now, but we have too many gaps. If we don’t fill those, companies will not expand here, companies will not come here.”

Research is needed to figure out the issues causing gaps between trained individuals and available jobs, Oldham said. Before beginning new training programs, the college wants to know about the quality of that career pathway — pay, stability of demand, how companies treat employees, and whether training classes can relate to other existing courses.

“Some areas of highest demand,” Oldham said, “also have poor pay.”

Indeed, 10 of the fastest-growing occupations in the state have an average income of just $27,000 a year, said Melinda Mack, executive director of the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals. That’s hardly a sustainable wage for a family.

Many areas focused on by workforce development programs, however, offer entry level pay that’s above minimum wage and a trajectory leading to $25 or $30 an hour.

There’s a stigma for manufacturing jobs several experts agreed.

“What’s going to make the difference is if you understand you can make $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 a year with a two-year degree or less,” Mack said.

She and Duffy agreed that companies need to work with schools to educate families about the jobs available in today’s manufacturing plants.

“People hear manufacturing—they think it’s a job they don’t want their kids to do,” Duffy said. “Many times we see Rochester companies making products that serve a global market.  If they could see, they’d be thoroughly impressed.”

Increasingly, Oldham said, employers want trainees to know more than how to do a single job — build a car part or make a particular kind of widget. Mechatronics, for instance, focuses on electrical and mechanical principles behinds the automated devices used in a variety of industries. Repairing those advanced manufacturing devices is a hot skill to have now.

By and large, it is companies that come to colleges seeking this kind of training program for their existing employees, said Reid Smalley, executive director of workforce development at Genesee Community College’s Business and Employment Skills Training center. He praised MCC’s advanced manufacturing training programs and said he’d like to do more in Batavia. But while the state provides grants for 60 percent of a company’s training cost for such programs, individuals can be out of luck. The grants aren’t available for them.

A GCC mechatronics program that can provide ready-to-hire status in just 18 months costs nearly $14,000 in tuition. State and federal college loan and grant programs aren’t available for that training, Smalley said, because the programs aren’t credit-bearing.

“That’s a lot of money to pull out of your wallet,” he said. “If there was funding for that, we’d be filling our mechatronics classes.”

Less expensive is GCC’s one-month diesel technician certification program offered in Avon, Livingston County, costing $4,800.

“You walk out with a credential and they’ve placed all those graduates so far,” Smalley said. While that amount of tuition may still be out of reach for some unemployed workers, Smalley said, “you’ve got to make the personal investment, take out the loan, or ask mom or dad.”

Affording the tuition for new training is just one piece of the puzzle, though.

“The unemployed people often don’t have the foundational skills — the math or the English skills,” Smalley said. “Getting them up to speed often takes quite a while to do. That’s always been a challenge.”

An eight-hour soft skills course isn’t going to be enough to turn around a person in poverty who dropped out of school, spent time in prison and has no job experience, Duffy said. Unfortunately, many of Rochester’s youth who drop out of high school follow that path. Rochester schools aren’t doing the region any favors with its low graduation rate, Duffy said.

“We have to start teaching principles of work and work ethic at a very young age,” he said, and if those lessons aren’t learned at home, they are perfect subject matter for elementary and secondary schools. “Several CEOs don’t care about education requirements. They say ‘just send me someone who will come to work every day, come on time, be ready to work and get along with other people and we’ll hire them.’”

Mack said she hopes state funds can be directed in creative ways to make it easier for barriers to employment. It doesn’t help a person in a rural area, for example, to finish a job apprenticeship program if he or she doesn’t have a way to get to the job afterward. Funds should be made available for transportation, English classes or child care, she said.

Several years ago the dairy processing industry was expanding rapidly in the Batavia area and the BEST center created a number of short-term courses, from safe food handling practices to occupational safety classes to get workers trained to work in Greek yogurt plants.

“We ran that program. We couldn’t get people to enroll in it. We’re not quite sure why,” Smalley said. Perhaps some people were prescient; the much-heralded Quaker Mueller plant closed two-and-a-half years after opening. Now, however, Hood will be reopening the plant and plans to start recruiting food production staff in the second quarter of the year, Smalley said. They’ll be looking for GCC workforce training programs, too, he said.

“We have to take a step back and just look at how can we better align our workforce development efforts with the needs,” said Duffy, who also co-chairs the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. “Workforce development is a national issue. Communities around the country are struggling on this.”

He added, “We should be the leader on this.”

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