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Clark: community colleges ‘uniquely’ positioned for training

Workforce training is one of the most critical components for business and industry to be able to compete in the world economy. In Mississippi and throughout the nation, community colleges are increasingly being looked to as the providers of choice for workforce training.

“Mississippi’s 15 community colleges are uniquely positioned to respond to the critical workforce development needs in their districts and in our state,” said Dr. Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi State Board for Community and Junior Colleges (SBCJC). “This can be through short-term or long-term training programs, customized training for existing industries, or pre-employment training for new industries.”

Effective, efficient

“Their experience in teaching adults, their flexibility in terms of delivery and scheduling of training, their responsiveness to the training needs of business and industry and their low costs — all of these factors make them the logical choice for workforce development and training in Mississippi. No other entity in Mississippi could respond to the training needs of business and industry as effectively or as efficiently as do our two-year colleges.”

With the cost of college tuition continuing to escalate, the two-year colleges are a bargain for both parents and students. For a minimum investment of time and money, students with technical degrees or certificates can enter the workforce with the skills they need to find employment.

There is no question that the community and junior colleges provide the biggest bang for the buck in higher education in Mississippi. The average cost of attending a community college in Mississippi is still only $1,766 a year in tuition and fees. Considering that an individual with a two-year associate’s degree can expect on average to make $9,100 more per year than an individual with a high school diploma, that is an excellent return on investment.

Options abound

Clark said the community and junior colleges provide the citizens of Mississippi with an opportunity for short-term (one- to two-year) technical education and training that will enable them to get good jobs, to be retained in the workforce and, in many cases, to advance to higher skill and higher wage jobs.

“All of these advantages allow our citizens to be more productive members of society and to have an improved quality of life for themselves and their families,” he said. “We should not think of the two-year degree versus the four-year degree as an ‘either-or’ proposition, however. The two-year degree can provide not only entry into the workplace, but a stepping stone for more advanced degree attainment for those who want it. Having the skills needed to get a job and earn an income comes in handy for individuals who are paying their way through a university. “

In addition to that, it is common for companies that hire technical graduates to then provide tuition reimbursements for those who want to continue their education.

The SBCJC is also beginning to see more and more instances of “reverse transfer,” whereby students who have already completed baccalaureate and even master’s degrees are enrolling in career and technical education programs to get the necessary skills to get or keep a job.

Programs in demand

The programs most in demand include, of course, nursing and other allied health fields. There is a nursing shortage in Mississippi and across the nation. With the aging Baby Boomer generation, there is an even greater demand for nursing and other allied health programs expected in the future.

“Our country is also experiencing a critical shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing and construction trades,” Clark said. “Mississippi is no exception. We are beefing up our programs in advanced manufacturing to address the needs of new industries such as Toyota in Northeast Mississippi and PACCAR in the Golden Triangle. We are also working hard on several fronts to address the current demand for certified welders and other metal-trades workers.”

More than 72,000 Mississippians work in metal-related trades, including shipbuilding, oil and gas exploration and production, petroleum refining and petrochemical manufacturing along with commercial construction, homebuilding, automotive manufacturing and the steel industry. The demand for these types of workers is expected to increase by 24% over the next 10 years.

The current condition of the economy is impacting the community college systems in several ways. Each year, the community colleges receive a share of the money from the State’s Education Enhancement Fund. That fund is generated from the 1¢ sales tax increase that was passed by the Legislature in 1992.

“This year, due to lower than expected sales tax revenue in the state, our portion of that funding was short by more than $1.2 million,” Clark said. “That is 3.3% less than what we were expecting to receive in that funding category.”

Another factor that has the potential to affect funding is the increase in statewide unemployment benefits, which has resulted from the weakened economy. In 2004, the Legislature acted to provide a more stable funding mechanism for workforce training, by designating 3/10 of 1% of the taxable wages in the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund (UI) be directed to the community and junior colleges for the sole purpose of providing workforce training.

“That Workforce Enhancement Training Fund, or WET as it has become known, is automatically suspended if the UI Trust Fund ever falls below $500 million,” Clark said. “The projections that we are hearing say that for every $5 increase in weekly benefits, the UI Trust Fund decreases by approximately $4 million. We have been told that by 2012 or sooner, depending on the economy, we could be very close to the $500 million limit at which the WET fund will be suspended.”

Another major fallout is the increased cost of energy that is having a dramatic impact on each of the colleges. The colleges are currently exploring ways to reduce the amount of money spent on heating, cooling, electricity and fuel.

“It is very important to us that we do all we can to adjust to these increase costs without passing them along to our students,” Clark said. “We try very hard to keep tuition increases to a minimum, because we know that increases in tuition directly impact our students and their ability to access higher education.”

Public-private partnerships

One thing that helps make the education system the most relevant it can be to the needs of state residents is partnerships with the private sector. Without those partnerships, they could not accomplish nearly as much.

“Our colleges work with the businesses and industries in their districts to provide them the customized training they need in order to remain competitive on a local, state and national level,” Clark said. “In return, those businesses and industries often provide training facilities or donate equipment to help defray the costs of program implementation. Those start-up costs would be prohibitive without industry support.”

This past year, more than 800 businesses and industries participated in the colleges’ workforce training programs. Through those programs, community colleges provided approximately 610,000 hours of instruction and trained more than 150,000 Mississippians for jobs in areas such as manufacturing, hospitality, construction trades, technology and healthcare. Clark said the demand for workforce training will only continue to increase as the U.S. economy evolves and particularly as the economy becomes more dependent on the latest technological innovations.

Critical future

The future of workforce training is critical in preparing Mississippi to compete in the global economy. Clark emphasized that a trained workforce is the key to attracting new industries to Mississippi, as well as to keeping and growing existing industries.

“In order for us to remain competitive locally, nationally and internationally, we cannot overemphasize the importance of quality workforce training,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.


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