BOONEVILLE — Community colleges in the past traditionally provided general, basic educational instruction for students who then went on to finish their education at a four-college institution. But today community colleges, particularly in the South, have undergone a transformation to become key players in economic development.
A study commissioned by the Southern Rural Development Center headquartered at Mississippi State University concluded that the economy has prompted changes in the mission of community colleges. The study’s author, Dr. Stuart Rosenfield, president of Regional Technology Strategies, said community colleges have shifted from transitional institutions to workforce development and economic development institutions.
The trend has been particularly important in rural areas because of the need to provide jobs and economic development programs.
In order to meet the challenges of the new focus for community colleges, the Northeast Mississippi Community College recently hired Richardson & Short, LLC., Starkville to conduct a survey of northeast Mississippi educational and industrial training needs.
Study author Dr. Jimmy Richardson said economic development and industrial training have become more important focuses at community colleges because these colleges are closest to the grassroots and more aware of the needs of the community.
“Community colleges are closer to the community than universities,” Richardson said. “They have more direct ties. They are providing more of the vo-tech, hands-on training to qualify people to go directly to work.”
Dr. Carol Short, the study’s coauthor, said that another element is simply that economic development is now part of the mission given to the community colleges by the legislature.
Richardson and Short found that many of the industries surveyed weren’t aware of the wide array of training programs available through the community college.
“Management wanted to know more about what the community colleges are doing,” Short said. “They thought an Area Industrial Services Luncheon for companies in the five-county service area would be good idea, an opportunity for community college officials to discuss the programs they already have.”
Industries are so busy producing that they don’t take the time to initiate information sharing with the community college. Another recommendation was sending a monthly newsletter to area businesses and industries including updates on what Northeast is offering, and editorials or articles that address industry needs.
The survey found that finding qualified workers is the number one greatest concern of management. Forty-five percent of management indicated finding qualified workers was their greatest concern. More than 70% indicated it was one of their top three greatest concerns.
Short said that they expected that the issue of finding qualified workers would be a top concern of management. But it was surprising that it was also a top concern of employees.
“Employees said it impacted them in other areas such as stress,” Short said. “When there is a shortage of workers, they have to work overtime and that stresses them both in the personal sense and in the work sense.”
Industries are responding to concerns about the labor crunch by running newspaper ads, using the Mississippi Employment Service, using temporarily employment services, working with schools and community colleges, and offering flexible work schedules.
In order to address worker shortages, it was recommended that a forum be held on finding qualified workers bringing together economic developers, local industries and the community colleges. The forum could include break out session to allow participants the opportunity for brainstorming solutions to the program. Other session could provide information on proven techniques for improving the hiring process. Also, local personnel service companies could participate as presenters or exhibitors.
The second issue of greatest concern for managers was communication between management and employees. That ranked as the top concern for about 20% of management while another 38% indicated that communication was one of their top three concerns. Employees listed communications between management and employees as their top concern, with worker shortages coming in second.
Short said sometimes management may think they are doing a good job by posting information on a bulletin board or by providing employees with a brochure. But the messages may not always be getting through clearly.
“The employee is not listening or not hearing it,” Short said. “So, it is important for management to follow through to make sure employees understand.”
The study recommended that communication be included as a major component of leadership training, and that program developers participate in a “shadowing program” with select companies. Training modules could then be developed to reflect the specific industrial environment. It was strongly suggested that real life case studies be included in the training modules.
Even though management did not indicate that workplace skills in machinery and hands-on processes was much of a problem, about 24% of employees surveyed indicated an interest in computer training or vocation training in areas such as calibration, economics and blue print readers. To capitalize on the apparent interests of employees and to enhance employee motivation, the following actions were recommended:
• Use company newsletters, bulletin boards and meetings to advertise vocational programs already being offered on campus. Make a special effort to offer beginning classes in the evening.
• Conduct basic computer training classes at a central location in each of the five counties.
• Consider intensive classes so that a course could be completed within a shorter time period to accommodate employees whose shifts vary.
• As a pilot marketing effort, select one large company in each county. If possible, secure home addresses for the employees. Mail a flyer or brochure announcing the upcoming night classes. Track the responses from these individuals to determine if employees respond better when they receive the information at home.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.