A group of lawmakers, educators, and business officials who gathered at a summit Friday morning said community colleges can help drive Connecticut’s economic recovery by partnering with businesses and industries to develop tailored programming.
While unemployment continues to hover around 9 percent, efforts have been made to encourage demand for new jobs. But a large portion of the Regional Economic and Community College Summit at Manchester Community College Friday focused on addressing another aspect of the jobs crisis— supply.
David Baime of the American Association of Community Colleges told the group of about 250 about a troubling trend.
“Despite the fact that there are many job openings, there remain individuals lacking qualifications to fill those jobs,” he said, adding that there remains a mismatch between what the education system is doing and what the private sector needs.
Some state lawmakers said they are hoping to take ideas from Friday’s summit to find ways to remedy that mismatch to get more people in Connecticut working.
“What I’m hoping to bring back is how can we have our community colleges be more responsive to businesses’ needs,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford. “How can we make our degree programs and certificate programs, how can we develop them quickly as businesses have emerging needs.”
Bye, who chairs the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, said she has been touring manufacturers throughout the state and they have expressed a need for more skilled machinists. She also has seen efforts on the part of industries to help train promising students.
“Some manufacturers actually pay the tuition once a kid is identified that they see as a good prospect to be a machinist. This manufacturer in Glastonbury actually pays the tuition the first year and if the kid does well the second year and then they come work for them. So we need more of that,” she said.
If businesses are willing to put in the effort and the funds to develop a qualified workforce, Bye said policymakers should be doing whatever they can to make that process easier.
“It’s just this idea that these businesses will do anything to get the high quality workers they need. And they’ve had to go out of their way to find ways and I think as a state our job is to make policies to make that easier for businesses. It may be manufacturing but there may be other industries like health care,” she said.
And while admitting there isn’t a lot of money on the table right now for the state to help fund new programs, Bye said now is the time to invest in training a qualified workforce.
“In bad times it’s a good time to invest in bridges and roads, that’s a long standing economic principal. But it’s also a good time to invest in our human infrastructure and you heard them talk about how many federal programs there are, so we really have to work out some federal dollars and bring them into the state,” she said.
Some of the ideas from the summit also left an impression on Sen. Gary Lebeau, D-East Hartford, who moderated a panel discussion. Community colleges will play a role in the state’s economic rebound but they must adapt to the new demands of its industries, he said.
“It’s not sufficient just to go forward being what they are. I think it’s clear that there has to be more customized job training. There has to be more innovative programs to deal with specific industry needs,” he said.
LeBeau pointed to the film studio planned for the town of South Windsor as an opportunity for regional community colleges to offer specialized training.
“Hopefully by next summer there will be a studio in South Windsor making films and we want those people to be Connecticut residents,” LeBeau said. “And there’s a job gap. It’s going to take a very rapid response by MCC.”
The new studio should be the source of technical jobs like sound and lighting but also other specialties like makeup, he said, adding that he expects community college representatives to open a line of dialogue with the studio to identify the skills that will be required and offer programs for students to attain them.
“That’s the nature of community college. At least 50 percent of its function is to prepare people for actual jobs,” he said. “Now I don’t believe they’ve been as nimble as they should be. I think part of what we’ve heard today is that they need to become more nimble, more flexible.”
Inviting businesses into the educational process also will help, he said. If they identify an upcoming need, companies can help to fund an educational program to address that need or even provide specialists to help teach the material, he said.
LeBeau, co-chairman of the legislature’s Commerce Committee, said he believes the General Assembly can take steps to help the schools along and foster the necessary cooperation.
“Number one, send a signal that we think it’s important to do that and let the community colleges know that they should be doing more and saying ‘look, this is a priority because we have to prioritize the economy,’” he said. “Secondly I think there are some changes that can be made in the funding of, and how we put together programs to allow more flexibility to the community colleges to be more responsive to business.”