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Impatient employers step in to educate prospective workers

Chris Connell / The Hechinger Report

From cable guy to nuclear technician: John Hoffmeister.

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Cable TV installer John Hoffmeister was strapped to a utility pole 30 feet in the air when his cellphone rang with the offer of a better job.

The energy company AREVA was calling to say that it would train Hoffmeister to repair nuclear reactors and at the same time send him to a community college in Lynchburg, Va., for an associate’s degree. He’d draw his full salary while spending 10 weeks a year in two compressed semesters of classes that the company helped devise.

For Hoffmeister, 37 — who had started college after high school but dropped out, and ended up installing home-security systems, delivering pizzas and even working as a cattle hand — it was a perfect second chance.

“When you find out about a program like this where you can kind of turn back the hands of time and get, essentially, a scholarship, it works out amazing,” said Hoffmeister, who received his associate’s degree four years after starting in the program. It also served AREVA by helping fill a glaring need for trained employees that many companies say the nation’s higher-education system isn’t turning out with the skills, and at the speed, they need.

The AREVA collaboration with its hometown community college is an example of an approach that has come to be called “learn and earn,” which the Obama administration and many higher education experts say the country needs to stay competitive: It offers more opportunities for working adults to earn a living, often supported by their employers, while they upgrade skills to take on specific, high-demand jobs.

Instead of just picking up stray credits and classes, older students like Hoffmeister are steered into carefully planned and structured programs that lead to degrees and certificates in particular fields in the shortest time possible.

Hospitals in Cincinnati, Ohio; Louisville, Ky., and elsewhere are providing higher-level training to prospective nurses and technicians they’ve already hired for lower-level jobs. Shipyard trainees in Newport News, Va., and newly minted jet mechanics and machinists in Seattle, too, are earning college credits while starting their careers, preparing them to advance to more sophisticated work.

Some of the biggest companies in America have joined the push to expand opportunities like this for low-income workers in dead-end jobs. Corporate Voices for Working Families, a non-profit business membership organization, has published case studies showcasing some of the best models like AREVA’s.

Business-community college partnerships like these are getting a push from a little-known, $2 billion U.S. Department of Labor initiative to improve career pathways at community colleges and address dismal graduation rates. While it sounds like common sense that everyone entering a community college would be enrolled in targeted, carefully focused programs of study, most students aren’t. They wander in, take a few credits and wander off again — a few because they land new jobs or promotions, but many because their educations were taking too much time or didn’t seem to be getting them anywhere. Meanwhile, an estimated 3.7 million jobs remain vacant because employers say they can’t find applicants with the right skills.

Only half of 62,000 students in community colleges in Washington state, for example, tracked over seven years by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University, passed at least three courses in a single field, and fewer than 30 percent earned certificates or degrees or transferred to four-year institutions.

But for those who found their ways into concentrated programs of study, the success rate approached 50 percent — especially if they did so right off the bat.

“All the data says the same thing: If you know where you’re going, you’re more likely to get there,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

25 percent high school drop-out rate
The Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program is a remnant of the American Graduation Initiative, which President Barack Obama proposed early in his first term as part of efforts to regain by 2020 America’s standing as the country with the highest proportion of college-educated people.

That remains a goal. But it’s a tall order with 25 percent of teenagers dropping out of high school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and anemic community-college graduation rates that have helped sink the United States from first to 16th among developed countries in the proportion of its population with college and university degrees.

It’s also why policymakers, educators, employers and foundations are pushing to make community college courses more relevant to available jobs and speed up the journey to degrees and certificates.

Colleges including Central Virginia and Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville dovetail instruction to the needs of older, working students and the requirements of local businesses.

Related: Economic reality marries apprenticeships, college

Norton Healthcare and other hospitals in Louisville are working with Jefferson to fill their ranks of medical lab technicians and therapists’ assistants by sending them to specially designed evening classes at the college that help entry-level hospital workers advance into higher-paid, more demanding positions.

Gail Kuper, a receptionist in a Norton physicians’ practice, jumped at the opportunity and is on her way to becoming a medical assistant with an associate’s degree.

“What a mistake I made not going to college right out of high school, but I got married and had two kids. It just wasn’t in the cards at the time,” said the 43-year-old grandmother. Now she spends 15 hours in classes each week in addition to her day job.

In Cincinnati, a successful hospital-college partnership has propelled Carrie Martin from taking vital signs and administering shots in a clinic into the better-paid position of registered nurse. The Health Careers Collaborative that local hospitals launched with Cincinnati State Technical and Community College has become a national model. Cincinnati State and Jefferson are among 10 colleges that shared a $20 million U.S. Department of Labor grant last year to continue to expand pathways into high-demand medical professions.

It took Martin, who is 37, four years of evening classes, but she earned an associate’s degree and her nurse’s cap in 2010, then went on to get a bachelor’s degree the next year. Now she’s halfway through a master’s program from which she will emerge as a nurse practitioner, making $60,000 to $70,000 a year to start, all while working full time at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Community college 'boot camps'
Some learn and earn programs, like AREVA’s, pay workers’ salaries while they take classes. AREVA enrolls about 24 new technicians each year at Central Virginia, who take math, computer and general education classes while training at the company’s Lynchburg facility or going on the road to maintain or repair nuclear power plants.

Chris Connell / The Hechinger Report

The UPS Worldport is a noisy mammoth of a place, a whirligig of conveyor belts and bins. Lasers guide 1.6 million packages each night into the right bins so they can be trundled back onto the UPS fleet of 130 jets.

In Louisville, some 2,000 students at Jefferson and the University of Louisville are getting their full college tuition paid by working part-time on the midnight shift at UPS Worldport, the package delivery giant’s huge facility at the Louisville International Airport. The college students and other workers unload 130 UPS jets that converge there each evening, feed the packages onto conveyor belts that sort them into the right bins, then load them back again.

UPS was having trouble finding reliable workers for the 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift before it began a $1 billion expansion of Worldport in 1999. Rather than risk losing one of the city’s major employers, the state offered the company tax credits to cover half the cost of employees’ community-college tuition, and a collaboration called Metropolitan College was born.

It’s still an expensive proposition for UPS, but it has produced a dependable, highly productive and stable workforce, said Tom Volta, vice president for human resources. “People aren’t moving packages in the wrong places and sending them off to destinations unknown,” he said. The college students, added personnel manager Steve Oppel, “make the best employees because they have a lot more at stake. They don’t want to jeopardize their job.”

Since Metropolitan College’s inception 12,000 UPS workers have availed themselves of free tuition to earn 3,000 degrees and 4,000 certificates.

Utility companies in Georgia and elsewhere, worried about a looming shortage of line-workers among their aging workforce, have teamed up with community colleges to run “boot camps” that groom students for those critical jobs.

With help from an industry-sponsored organization called the Center for Energy Workforce Development, the utilities and colleges produced a curriculum for an eight-week electrical line-worker training program that combines classroom instruction about working safely with electricity with outdoor practice climbs on utility poles. Students earn 12 college credits and first crack at jobs that pay $14 to $16 an hour.

The five enthusiastic students at the boot camp last summer at Georgia Piedmont Technical College outside Atlanta included a laid-off machinist, a laid-off metalworker, a house painter, an electrician and a yard worker, ages 21 to 31. Corey Willard, the youngest, quit his last job because “I wanted more of a career than cutting people’s grass for $9 an hour.” The oldest, machinist Kenny Minish, said, “I’m a believer. I always wanted to be a lineman and this was the perfect opportunity.”

The Georgia Piedmont program “has been a godsend for us,” said Victor Hurst, vice president of line services for Snapping Shoals Electric Membership Corporation. “We were just failing too often hiring straight off the street.” And, he said, the college classes serve an additional purpose: letting the future line-workers know they need to keep learning.

“The equipment, the technology they have to work with, changes and changes fast. It’s getting hard for us to keep them abreast of the things they need to work on. They are constantly going to class,” said Hurst. “Training is part of what you’ll be doing in this business until the day you say, ‘I’m ready to retire.’”

This article, "Impatient employers step in to educate prospective workers," was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. It’s one of a series of reports about workforce development and higher education.

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