Updated March 2014
The day after the State of the Union address, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, traveled to Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, to talk at its Applied Technologies Center. The topic: education and workforce development, specifically matching the needs of employers with the skills taught by community colleges.
MCC has garnered national acclaim for how it has identified and addressed the precise skills shortages felt by dozens of Rochester-area manufacturing firms. The process started by probing into local labor market data and reaching out to area businesses. And although its research is ongoing, MCC has gone from measuring regional skills gaps and establishing an accelerated machinist training program to working with EMSI to estimate the value to the regional economy of training people for middle-skill jobs.
Monroe sees its exhaustive approach as a model for 21st century workforce development at community colleges.
A Foundation Built on Data and Research
In 2011, Todd Oldham joined Monroe Community College as the vice president of its new Economic Development and Innovative Workforce Services Division, and almost immediately he faced difficult decisions. Which programs should the college keep? Which should it close? “Everyone is vying for your dollars,” he said.
Oldham had heard anecdotally of local skill gaps in manufacturing and elsewhere. Yet as he started asking questions, he realized he had no substantive data to guide the college’s decision-making.
“For me,” Oldham said, “you look at skill gaps and you read these generalized reports, but when you read them from a practitioner’s perspective, ‘OK, I learned the buzzwords and I learned some of the aggregate numbers, but I don’t know what that means for manufacturing or for a given skillset.’ It doesn’t take it to that level.”
So Oldham and his staff started assembling data at the most granular level they could find. In the last year, they’ve made an aggressive push for regular surveys that ask employers pointed questions, they’ve analyzed detailed labor market data from EMSI and other sources, and they’ve created supply/demand dashboards for occupational clusters — all with the goal of developing and fine-tuning programs that make the most sense for the region and help solve real and local skill shortages.
In a nutshell, MCC embraced “using data to systematically inform program development,” said Lomax Campbell, who assists Oldham in the Economic Development and Innovative Workforce Services Division.
The systematic approach involves parsing data, working with employers, engaging faculty, and more. But it started with a series of vital questions: “What type of jobs exist out there? Where do we want to try to build strategic partnerships to really focus on filling those jobs and preparing the workforce for those jobs? And what value does that give back to the economy?” Campbell said. “It’s systematizing data and decision-making.”
MCC’s Cluster-Informed Strategy to Support Economic Development
The Rochester metro economy has transitioned from three bedrock employers — Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, and Xerox — to hundreds of small manufacturing and optics firms. Manufacturing is still the dominant economic force in the region of about 1.1 million people, comprising 17% of private-sector jobs, but this splintering of the employer base made it more difficult for MCC to gauge the specific skills needs of individual companies.
Manufacturing is one of five industry clusters that the college has prioritized to match the mission of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, one of 10 regional entities the New York governor’s office established. These sectors fit well with MCC’s existing offerings that target middle-skill occupations and with the area’s major employment sectors.
Monroe has also applied a cluster-oriented plan to its surveying efforts. The college’s focus has largely been on manufacturing, particularly through its survey with the Rochester Technology and Manufacturing Association (RTMA). MCC also partnered on the Rochester Area Skill Needs Assessment and Business Climate Survey, a study that showed “persistently unfilled positions” — the majority of which are middle-skill — comprise about 5% of the regional workforce.
Our approach to resolving the skill shortages in our region is to develop strategies grounded in local labor market data. Through our collaborations with regional employers and economic experts, we bolster that data by conducting surveys among local businesses. We also make publicly available data that matches current and future career opportunities with education and training” — Anne Kress, MCC President
One reason why its surveys have been successful is that MCC created a database of approximately 2,400 businesses in the Rochester area to ensure it was talking to the right companies, and to the right people at those companies. It first worked through a huge list of business names from Hoover’s before using a call center to verify information with local firms and ask them if they would be OK receiving information from the college.
The pre-populated business database has helped Oldham’s division fulfill its mission to support economic development in the region. In the RTMA survey, for example, MCC found that 65 local manufacturers needed workers with analytic trouble shooting training, while another 30 needed workers with technical writing skills, and 20 were lacking knowledge of metrology in their workforce.
“That was across multiple small businesses,” Oldham said, “so we would have never have heard that otherwise. And if we heard it, we wouldn’t know how to address it because none of the companies could pay for individual training. But by doing that and being very smart about, because it’s a prepopulated list, we know when you respond to the survey. We know who you are, we follow up, and we’re directing dollars that should be invested directly in the company’s needs.”
To Oldham, this is where higher education and economic development meet.
“It’s a very powerful way that you can truly say that economic development is occurring through the higher education system, or in this case, our college,” Oldham said. “Because we’re directing monies based on really granular skillset needs at the company.”
MCC’s Accelerated Machining Certificate Program
In response to the RTMA survey and further data research, Monroe last year launched an accelerated precision machining certificate program for displaced workers and veterans. The college squeezed its standard 33-credit program into 22 weeks by offering evening classes, which means it can now produce as many as 15 additional entry-level machinist graduates every six months. In addition, the college partnered with the Rochester Technology and Manufacturing Association to help place graduates from the program.
In October 2013, MCC’s accelerated precision machining certificate program graduated its inaugural class of 13, and 90% of the graduates got jobs. The college will produce even more machinist graduates every six months if the glaring need is still there. It will also add other accelerated programs as the case for them becomes clear. Across the country and at the federal level, Oldham noted, fast-track community college programs are gaining more traction, and for good reason. “They’re a viable way of getting various dislocated people into a skillset that can be done in more rapid format.”
Meanwhile, Oldham and Campbell have expanded their research to explore the supply and demand outlook for more than 20 other occupational clusters, not just with data for MCC and the county it serves but also in conjunction with two area community colleges. Each cluster focuses on middle-skill employment and allows for students to enter an educational pathway that leads to in-demand, solid-paying jobs.
Measuring the Economic Impact of Closing Skill Gaps
The final step is working with EMSI economists to estimate the value to the Rochester economy of closing local skill gaps for a select group of clusters. The research will look at the added income to the region of training students for middle-skill occupations versus what those students stayed at a high-school level of education (with the marginal substitution of labor taken into account). For each cluster or occupation, EMSI will look at the number of people MCC trained to get an ROI for the investment.
Monroe expects this collection of data — from the specific gaps to the economic ramifications of filling them — to be “extremely powerful for being more competitive” in going after federal grants, Oldham said. Moreover, the data will be helpful to share internally at the college, as well with partnering community colleges and the community at large.
Oldham said doing this research and compiling key data points in visually compelling ways goes back to supporting economic development.
“This is how economic development thinking through workforce comes back around to directly impact the region. Because we’re directing investment based upon measurable gaps. And it’s not just measuring them. We know what that’s worth, not just to the student and not just to the college but to the economy.”
MCC Career Coach a Vital Communication Piece
Beyond its research and data collection, MCC has placed a major emphasis on communicating the most pertinent data on careers and training to students and jobseekers in the Rochester area. It’s one thing to understand employers’ needs and establish the right fast-track programs; it’s another thing to get students into programs and on educational pathways that will lead to solid careers and family-sustaining wages.
This is where MCC Career Coach comes in. EMSI’s public-facing career exploration tool sits prominently on MCC’s site and is easily accessible for students and anyone else to peruse. Biden mentioned Career Coach during his post-State of the Union visit, and so too did Anne Kress, Monroe’s president, in an article for Community College Daily.
“Our approach to resolving the skill shortages in our region is to develop strategies grounded in local labor market data,” Kress wrote. “Through our collaborations with regional employers and economic experts, we bolster that data by conducting surveys among local businesses. We also make publicly available data [through Career Coach] that matches current and future career opportunities with education and training.”
A Model for 21st Century Workforce Development
Monroe sees the steps it’s taken to define and approach local skill gaps as a template for other colleges — an example of 21st century workforce development. “This is what you can do with the current technologies of Big Data, labor market information, and workforce intelligence, with really just a couple of people,” Oldham noted.
While the work hasn’t been easy, Oldham and Campbell have done the bulk of it themselves, something that was possible in part by tapping into easily accessible data through EMSI’s web-based tools.
MCC has become a go-to source in the region for local labor market and workforce information. Internally, the college uses data for grants, program review, and more — “at every level we can,” as Oldham put it.
But just using data isn’t enough to Oldham. “We have to start applying it. It should be changing how we do things.”
Along these lines, Oldham views the college’s investment in labor market data — as well as its research on local workforce issues and business needs — as more than just a short-term effort. “The thing that I want to stress,” Oldham said, “is that this is not a project; this a programmatic approach. We have dedicated person who does nothing but outreach for Career Coach. We take it pretty seriously. We are getting results and we are going to be in a position for being the default leadership for having the most knowledge around the local workforce with actual significant data.”
Photos courtesy of Monroe Community College.
Emsi turns labor market data into useful information that helps organizations understand the connection between economies, people, and work. Using sound economic principles and good data, we build user-friendly services that help educational institutions, workforce planners, and regional developers (such as WIBs, EDOs, chambers, utilities) build a better workforce and improve the economic conditions in their regions. For more information, email Josh Wright (email@example.com) or visit www.economicmodeling.com.
 The clusters are health care, the skilled trades, information technology, hospitality/tourism, and manufacturing.