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Local colleges offer new and renewed workforce opportunities

In Geneva, students at Finger Lakes Community College ferment wine, hoping their training will provide either a second career in the wine industry or a less-expensive leg up on bachelor’s degree they’ll complete at Cornell University.

In North Chili, meanwhile, students at Roberts Wesleyan College’s BELL program learn the basics of having a job and interacting with others in an educational setting. These developmentally disabled students might go on to work in a library or grocery store with new confidence in their skills to handle employment.

From left, Keri Lannon, Kaleigh Flynn, Jordan Imm, and Brian Dieter in the teaching winery at the FLCC Viticulture and Wine Center in Geneva. Photo supplied by FLCC.
From left, Keri Lannon, Kaleigh Flynn, Jordan Imm and Brian Dieter in the teaching winery at the FLCC Viticulture and Wine Center in Geneva. (Photo courtesy FLCC)

And in Brighton, students in the optics program at Monroe Community College sometimes get a job before they can complete a degree or certificate because the optics industry’s demands are so high. The new hires will either finish their educational program later or learn the rest of what they need to know on the job.

In these three programs and myriads of others, colleges are responding to needs of employers and employees by tailoring degrees or certificate programs with very specific job outcomes in mind. In some cases, like the viticulture and optics programs, representatives of the industries sit on advisory councils to the programs, providing input on what sort of education will be most useful to their fields.

MCC’s optics program is the oldest of these three, and it’s among the oldest job-training programs MCC offers.  It was created in 1963 at the impetus of the Big Three companies that used to dominate Rochester—Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and Bausch & Lomb. As the three companies diminished through the 1980s and 1990s, though, the optics technology program was threatened. Just before the start of the Great Recession, in 2007, the program was “on life support,” said Alexis Vogt, chair of the optical systems technology program at MCC. “There were years that not a single student graduated.” Both Vogt and the CEO of local firm Sydor Optics credit MCC President Anne M. Kress with giving the optics training program the support it needed to continue. It’s now serving more than 70 students at a time.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” said Vogt. Unlike Detroit, which has crumbled along with the auto industry, Kodak’s vast shrinking had a different result for the surrounding city. “Rather than have one behemoth of a company, we have more than 150 optics companies,” she said.

Last year 60 companies came calling for potential hires. “So what we’re seeing is students are getting job offers even before they graduate from MCC,” Vogt said. Many are taking a job locally because the field is so rich here. But they needn’t limits their horizons.

“I’ve had companies contact me in Germany, asking how they could hire our graduates,” Vogt said.

The program produces technicians, the people who do a lot of the hands-on work in optics, whether in assembling or in testing lenses. They’re key to the process, Vogt said. In her previous job in the industry, she recalled having meetings to figure out what to do about products that couldn’t be shipped because of the need of a technician.

She said 70 percent of jobs in the field are going unfilled.

“The companies end up using people who have bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D.s to do the work of a technician,” she said, slowing down production.

Monroe Community College student Jack Chismar polishes lenses in an optics fabrication lab. Photo supplied by MCC.
Monroe Community College student Jack Chismar polishes lenses in an optics fabrication lab. (Photo courtesy MCC)

The continuing demand for graduates or even non-graduates has MCC considering how to change the program so students can complete the basic training sooner, or expand in size.

“We hope that a lot of the work we do with dual-enrollment high schools will bring in more students,” Vogt said. Such programs grant high schoolers MCC credits for courses they take in their high schools replicating ones taught at MCC.

Alec Drummond, a student in the optics program, was working in financial services for a local business school when the industry contracted; he was laid off at age 57. He worked several jobs before landing at MCC where a supervisor, understanding he didn’t want to retire, suggested he consider retooling by enrolling in the optics technology program.

It was a field he had never considered before because he never knew about it, he said.

Drummond started taking classes part time in the spring semester of 2016 and by the end of May 2018, he was offered a job at IDEX Health & Science in Henrietta as an optical technician. His new employer provides release time to attend classes so Drummond can complete the degree, as well as reimbursement for tuition.

“As long as you maintain 30 hours at IDEX, you’re qualified for all the benefits,” Drummond said, including pension and health insurance.

IDEX makes components of microscopes used in health care settings.

Now 64, and the father of two grown sons, Drummond is enthusiastic about his new line of work. “We have a tremendous team we’re working on. It’s very rewarding.”

And retirement still isn’t on his agenda. “I’ll do it the rest of my life,” he said.

Across the county, Roberts Wesleyan College’s Bridge to Earning, Living and Learning program is geared for students who possibly never had a first job, and whose disabilities might be a hurdle in the way of that happening.

BELL is aimed at students 18 to 26 with intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome.  Originally conceived as an employment training program when its funding came from a 2010 federal grant, its goals are broader now.

“Our goal has always been we’re educating for character, personal transformation,” said Kym Woodard, director of the BELL program, and that’s true for traditional Roberts students as well as BELL students.

For the last three years, the program has been funded through the BOCES II program and CP Rochester, which allows adult students to apply for federal student financial aid.

Some students come directly from high school, while others have been out for a bit, Woodard said. Students spend four semesters on campus, working in the areas of academics, social experience, vocation and functional academics, also known as independent living skills. Each has an academic coach who helps with time management skills. They also have peer mentors, who are other students who help them acclimate to campus.

“These develop into real friendships,” Woodard said.

The BELL students take the equivalent of 12 hours or four classes per semester, in many cases working alongside traditional students.

“Some might be academically fine, but struggle socially,” Woodard said, noting that some students have autism but are high-functioning. “We help them design their program and make course choices. Not everybody’s going to be in Biology 101.” A student might take a fitness class, for instance, as a first academic class.

Students are also required to find some sort of work on campus, which often can lead to something after they complete their certificate.

“A student who worked here in the library now works at the Gates Public Library,” Woodard said. “Another student loves people. She’s right for the helping professions.” A student who took a child development course and worked in the daycare at Roberts’ Pierce Memorial Church now has a job at the CP Rochester daycare center.

A survey the college conducted in 2016 of BELL graduates found 89 percent were engaged in either paid or unpaid work, or volunteer or internship programs.

Roberts has 12 students in BELL each year, with six in the first year and six in the second year.

“That’s the right size for our campus; we’re a small college,” Woodard said. Conversely, with an enrollment of 1,700, Roberts is the right size for students in the BELL program, with a limited number of faces and places to become familiar with.

Julianne Warren, graduate of Roberts Wesleyan's BELL program, now works at Tops. Photo supplied by Roberts Wesleyan College.
Julianne Warren, graduate of Roberts Wesleyan’s BELL program, now works at Tops Friendly Markets. (Photo courtesy Roberts Wesleyan College)

A graduate of the BELL program, Julianne Warren, was scared to try it after a friend recommended it to her, but now she feels comfortable on campus. Warren, 24, of Spencerport, has Down syndrome and was home-schooled instead of going to a traditional high school. Afterward, she enrolled in cooking and baking programs at BOCES II.

“The Bell program helped me to be independent and connected to people and my community,” Warren said. She can be self-conscious about stuttering but found that a public speaking class she took at Roberts helped.

“It was kind of a challenge for me, but now I did it and now I don’t stutter that much,” she said.

She particularly enjoyed the social events that were part of the BELL program, including an ice cream social and a “Beauty and the Beast” ball.

With the help of job coaches, she gained help finding and then getting used to a job in the bakery at the Tops grocery store in Spencerport, Warren said. But she still feels connected to Roberts.

“I am a part of the Roberts College. I am part of their team,” Warren said.

Woodard said the various colleges that have inclusion programs like Roberts’ for intellectually challenged students most likely put their own spins on providing opportunities for disabled students.

“This year the interest has exploded. If anything, there could be a need for more programs like this,” she said. “The word is getting out that college could be an option for a student with special needs, and parents are hearing that earlier. Don’t take it off the table. Explore it.”

Finger Lakes Community College’s Viticulture program was born out of two big economic forces in 2009. The Great Recession was just hitting its stride, and the Finger Lakes wine industry was really taking off.

The program provided a quick entry into the wine business — either making wine or growing grapes or both — for people looking to change fields or those in the industry looking for more formal education.

Director Paul Brock said the viticulture program hasn’t been as big a draw as other FLCC programs for students moving directly from high school graduation to community college.

With the exception of students who grew up on a winery or vineyard, “people in high school aren’t exposed to the wine industry like people who can drink,” Brock said.

As a result, students who attend the program, situated in a four-year-old facility in Geneva at the Cornell Tech Farm, tend to be people who have been in the workforce already and are changing direction. Brock said he gets a significant number of veterans seeking a new career after retirement from the military. And some students are just hobbyists who want more knowledge.

Besides meeting the basic requirements of an associate’s degree (Those classes are taught at the main campus in Hopewell, Ontario County, or the satellite campus in Geneva.) students are required to take courses in winemaking and raising of grapes, as well as work on internships in a vineyard and in a winery. With a school-run vineyard to operate, as well as a commercial winery included in the viticulture building, students learn every aspect of wine from the growing and harvesting of the grapes to the label that goes on the bottles of wine they produce each fall.

When finished, students will be ready for jobs as assistant vineyard managers or assistant winemaker jobs. But students often have a strong preference for one over the other, Brock said.

“We aren’t producing people who want to be in the vineyard. People want to be in the winery,” he said.

A handful will continue on to Cornell University for a bachelor’s degree in viticulture, or, for those already holding a bachelor’s degree, they’ll go on for a master’s degree in the field at Cornell.

“It’s a great opportunity for students who otherwise wouldn’t be ready to get into Cornell right out of high school,” Brock said. But further education in viticulture isn’t for everyone.

Brock said “We’re hands-on with a background in science. Cornell is science with a background in hands-on.”

Most graduates tend to go directly into the wine industry locally, to the West Coast or Southeast, or even abroad.

Paige Vinson had bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and philosophy when she began working in billing and human resources for her father’s firm contracting for FedEx. After two years, she wanting something more hands-on and her hobby of craft brewing suggested a career in a different craft beverage.

Vinson considering continuing at Cornell for a master’s degree after graduating from FLCC’s viticulture program in 2014. Ultimately, though, she decided she was more interested in production than in research, and she wanted to travel. After working at Ravines Wine Cellars throughout her viticulture studies, her first post-FLCC job was working during the harvest and crush for a vineyard in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Then she flew to the Southern Hemisphere to work in vineyards and wineries in Australia and then New Zealand in rapid succession before returning home to Geneva.

“I feel like I got an enormous amount out of the program. It was a very, very challenging degree and it required a lot of time and energy,” Vinson said. “I got a lot of information and education really from the ground up — growing and maintaining vineyards, producing and packaging and selling wines. That’s not information that’s been really readily available, short of an expensive Cornell degree.”

Since returning to the states, Vinson has worked for three wineries, and took some time to be with the baby girl she gave birth to 18 months ago. She started working again in September 2018 as assistant winemaker at Three Brothers Vineyard in the town of Geneva. She lives not far away in the city of Geneva with her husband and daughter.

The FLCC viticulture program helped Vinson get a foothold in the industry quickly, but she said, “It’s pretty important to note that there’s no standard track for this industry.” The program has been positively received wherever she’s presented her credentials, as it’s “one of the first opportunities for the wineries around here to have access to a trained or educated workforce.”

Oddly, enrollment in the program that serves a growing industry has gone down in the last few years, Brock noted. The program can accommodate as many as 30 students in each class. This year it has 22 first-year students and 11 second-year students.

“We advertised a lot when the building opened,” Brock said. “We kind of let that slide.” And the economy has improved, which means FLCC’s viticulture program isn’t the only workforce training program affected by fewer people looking for retraining.

But need within the wine industry remains strong, and expectations are growing that most winemakers will have a degree, Brock said, which wasn’t true a generation or two ago.

“The industry needs more people than we are producing,” Brock said. “I just don’t have enough graduates to apply for all the jobs.”

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