During a speech to community college administrators in October, President Barack Obama recognized two-year colleges as the “unsung heroes” of the American educational opportunities to those who otherwise would be unable to enter higher education. Community colleges play an important role in reviving the economy and putting Americans back to work, he said. The New Jersey Council of Community Colleges (NJCCC) is using a creative new approach to meet that mission and get ahead of the curve.
Through the College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development, a partnership between the state and the community college system, the NJCCC brings the collective resources of its 19 colleges to the aid of local businesses. While other community colleges may offer continuing education courses, the Consortium provides customized employee training programs to businesses in the state. For example, a computer technician training course can be pared down to teach a specific program and can be conducted at a business’ worksite on laptop computers.
“Without the structure of a curriculum, we’ve streamlined the process. We can construct a training program within two weeks of meeting with a client that meets their specific needs,” says NJCCC Chief Operating Officer Bob Rosa.
Established via executive order from Gov. James E. McGreevey in 2003 with funding from the state’s unemployment insurance fund, the Consortium began as a one-stop training program for area businesses.
“We had been offering work force training for years but with the Consortium we became more nimble at capitalizing on the strength of our 19 colleges and bringing to bear our combined experience to any business, anywhere,” says NJCCC President Lawrence A. Nespoli.
The program has since grown to include partnerships with the biotechnology industry and the state’s utility companies. In 2007, the Consortium partnered with the New Jersey Business and Industry Association (NJBIA) to construct classes to fit the needs of the Association’s 22,000 individual businesses. Tuition costs for the 1,400 classes delivered by the Consortium so far amount to $2.4 million—a significant savings for employers and their employees with the state picking up the tuition tab. Seventy percent of the workers enrolled in classes earn $20 or less per hour. For their part, employers must continue to pay employees their wages while involved in the training.
“We approached the NJCCC with the idea of partnering,” says Chris Biddle, vice president of communications for NJBIA. “According to our own survey of members, they were not happy with the skills of many entry-level employees. By partnering with the NJCCC we were able to tie our two missions together as well as tap the NJCCC’s broad resources to help employers get technical training for their employees.”
Almost 90 percent of NJBIA’s members are classified as small businesses, meaning they have 30 or fewer employees. Their small sizes prevent many of the businesses from accessing state-funded training programs, either because the businesses are ineligible or the costs are prohibitive. Among other restrictions, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development requires that training classes have a minimum of 10 workers.
“Most small businesses have between one and five employees,” says Rosa. “They cannot afford to pull everyone off task to participate in training. We have the ability to build classes that have the minimum of 10 by aggregating workers from multiple businesses. A business can send as few as one if they choose. Our colleges will build the class.”
Since 2007, the Consortium has trained more than 16,000 workers for 1,100 NJBIA-member businesses. Although neither the Consortium nor NJBIA keeps demographic information about who is enrolled in the courses, Biddle notes that one of the more popular courses is English as a Second Language or ESL.
A Win-Win for Employers, Employees
The training courses not only benefit the business’ bottom lines, they can also help the employees themselves. Simon Kaplan, the CEO of NJBIA-member Crest Furniture, relates a story about an employee who enrolled in the Consortium’s ESL class. The employee had been trained as a computer technician before immigrating to the United States, but, because he couldn’t communicate effectively in English, he had been relegated to working in the warehouse. After taking ESL courses, his English improved to the point that he could demonstrate his computer skills to his supervisor, increasing warehouse efficiency in the process.
“He had experience and knowledge; he just didn’t have the ability to convey it until he took ESL classes,” says Kaplan. The employee now works in Crest Furniture’s IT department as a programmer.
“It’s a wonderful program,” says Kaplan of the Consortium. “Considering our economic challenges, it’s encouraging that the state is doing the kind of work that it should be and continues to enhance this program rather than cut it.”
Each week, the NJBIA sends out a flier to its members encouraging them to consider accessing the Consortium’s training classes. In 2007, McDonald’s franchisee Harry Staley received such a flier and contacted the Consortium to organize classes teaching ESL, math, and computer skills for his employees. Since reaching out to the Consortium, Staley has grown from four McDonald’s franchises to six.
“I wouldn’t say that Mr. Staley added more franchises as a result of ESL classes,” says Rosa. “But we do have numerous stories like this one, where training or improved communication skills directly benefited a business by helping improve its efficiency.”
Biddle believes the Consortium has helped save jobs in the state. As of September, New Jersey’s unemployment rate stood at 9.4 percent, slightly below the national average of 9.6 percent.
“If you figure that businesses thrive from better trained employees who improve efficiency, allowing employers to not only retain those employees but to hire more, then yes, you could say the program has helped save jobs in the state,” he says.
While funding for community colleges continues to shrink nationwide, the NJCCC has applied for and won an increasing share of state funds for the Consortium since its inception. For example, funding for the Consortium and NJBIA programs has grown from $699,000 in 2007 to $900,000 this year. Total Consortium funding grew to approximately $2.3 million in 2010.
The Consortium has attracted attention outside the state as well. According to Nespoli, other states have inquired about possibly using the Consortium as a model to boost their own industries.