The classroom crunch

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Print this page by Garry Kranz

Americast Inc. is an expert at making and installing precast concrete products. The backbreaking work requires brawn more than brains. At least that is how the Ashland-based company used to view its workers’ skills.
“We did a good job of recruiting quality workers, but once we got them, we really fell short on the training end,” says Dave Brinser, the company’s human resources director.
Foremost among the training needs: teaching supervisors to be effective leaders. Lacking a formal training program and the expertise to create one, Americast contacted the Community College Workforce Alliance (CCWA), a joint venture of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond and John Tyler Community College in Chester.

Representatives from the colleges visited Americast’s workplace, interviewed supervisors, analyzed training needs and lined up adjunct faculty to provide the training on site. The focus wasn’t so much on the concrete industry, but on managerial skills of communication, coaching and collaboration. During a 20-week span, instructors used Americast’s business model, its products and work situations to assess supervisors and help them acquire leadership skills. Near the end of the training, each of Americast’s eight supervisors was required to prepare and deliver a presentation.

“The best thing about it was [the Alliance’s] ability to come in, learn about our business and customize a program,” Brinser says. “That made the learning much more effective, because it was geared to situations and problems our supervisors deal with on the job every day.”

The colleges formed the CCWA when they merged work-force training operations six years ago. It is one example of the pivotal role community colleges play in nurturing skilled workers. The Virginia Community College System is the designated agency for delivering work-force-related training and education to companies in the commonwealth. Each of its 23 schools is charged with tailoring a mix of credit and noncredit offerings geared to local industry.

Fulfilling that mission, though, is tougher than ever. The recession is putting a hurt on state revenues at a time of rising enrollments. Virginia’s biennial budget saw a rash of painful cuts, and community colleges weren’t spared. Although the reductions were not as deep as those at some other state agencies, they still sting.

Five percent rise in enrollment
The VCCS originally was slated to receive $396 million for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. In his budget proposal, however, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine recommended slashing the VCCS budget for 2010 to $356 million. Since then, federal stimulus money has changed the projection and helped soften the blow. With the addition of stimulus funds and “technical [state] budget amendments,” the VCCS allocation for 2010 now is estimated at $375 million, says spokesman Jeff Kraus.

That leaves the VCCS about $20 million short. At the same time, enrollment continues to surge. VCCS schools added a cumulative 8,324 students in fall 2008, an increase of 5 percent from 2007. Between 2006 and 2008, nearly 17,000 new students have registered. “If they all showed up in one place, it would be larger than nine of the 15 public universities in Virginia,” says Glenn Dubois, chancellor of Virginia’s community colleges.

Increased student enrollment can be traced to Virginia’s “guaranteed transfer” provision, enacted by lawmakers as part of the Restructuring Act of 2005. It enables qualifying students to graduate from Virginia’s public four-year universities with a bachelor’s degree by completing the first two years of study at a Virginia community college. The guarantee aims to boost Virginia’s overall quotient of skilled labor by extending a student’s “finish line” past 12th grade. “What this economy ultimately will need is more degrees” to spur a turnaround, Dubois says.

Yet Dubois and his team of college presidents also realize that a four-year degree isn’t for everyone. Professional certifications and other short-term learning options — many of them in the noncredit arena — are popular with companies seeking to bolster workers’ skills. VCCS provided customized training programs for 100,000 workers at about 5,000 businesses, including Americast, in 2007-08. “From a business perspective, companies don’t care if [training] is for credit or noncredit,” says Peter Blake, VCCC vice chancellor for work-force development services. “When they approach one of our community colleges, they have a pressing need and are asking for help.”

Potential disadvantage
A VCCS-commissioned report by Richmond-based Mangum Economic Consulting says that state lawmakers allocate about $1.1 million a year for work-related noncredit courses. That’s an appropriation that varies little from year to year. The arrangement potentially puts Virginia at a competitive disadvantage with other states, including Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina, which provide more state funding for noncredit workplace training, the report concludes. 

With a small share of state money, noncredit training is paid for mostly by businesses that request it, says Blake. The VCCS charges companies on a “cost-recovery basis” that covers course materials, space, adjunct faculty, computer fees and billing/administrative expenses.
At the same time, community colleges aren’t permitted to cap enrollments. The Code of Virginia requires community colleges “to maximize noncredit course offerings made available to business and industry,” according to Mangum’s report. In theory, the General Assembly’s intent is to fund 30 percent of the cost of noncredit training courses, with companies shouldering the remaining 70 percent. But since the state’s funding share “has not kept pace with the level of noncredit training” offered, businesses actually are paying about 90 percent of the total cost, the report states.

Since hooking up with CCWA several years ago, Genworth Financial Inc. has spent more than $200,000 for customization of nearly 70 training programs that teach effective communication, presentation and similar professional skills. That’s about one-third the cost of hiring a private training company, says Frank Weber, Genworth’s director of learning and development. In addition, Weber says, Genworth employees in Connecticut, North Carolina, Tennessee and on the West Coast have received CCWA-delivered training through partnerships with community colleges in those states.
In a nod to economic travails, the State Board for Community Colleges last year voted to increase tuition and mandatory fees by $6 per credit hour. The board is the only entity with authority to establish tuition rates for Virginia’s community colleges.

Student body of 40,400
At Tidewater Community College, for instance, tuition for the 2009 spring semester was $82 per credit hour, up from $76 per credit hour. School officials say the hike was unwelcome but necessary for the college to continue its mission. During the past decade, enrollment has risen about 5 percent annually at TCC, one of the largest community colleges in Virginia. In 2009, however, the rise in enrollment is “off the charts” at 9.2 percent for the spring semester, which extends from January through May, says President Deborah DiCroce. That is exactly double the Norfolk-based school’s 4.6 percent growth projection for spring. Although an official tally won’t be available until May, TCC administrators project a student body of 40,400 in 2009.

DiCroce says it is impossible to miss the connection between rising enrollment and recession. Some students are taking advantage of the cost savings associated with guaranteed transfer, while others aim to meet more immediate needs, such as landing a new job or charting a career change.
Accommodating the influx of students is challenging. State funding cuts slashed $5 million from TCC’s operating budget, or about 10 percent. To cope, the school abolished 42 vacant positions, although it protected other faculty posts. Facilities, information technology and administrative services all took a hit.

“Enrollment growth is manifesting itself in the fact that there are still job needs,” DiCroce says, referring to a recent study done on behalf of the college. The study, produced for TCC by Economic Modeling Services Inc. in Moscow, Idaho, predicts Hampton Roads will need about 87,000 workers to fill new and vacant jobs by 2014. Most of the jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree, but workers will need more than a high school diploma. Those projections mirror some of TCC’s most popular fields of study last year, including health care, nursing, computer science, hospitality management, transportation and fire science.

Those fields will help diversify a regional economy built on shipbuilding and defense contracting, robust sectors which also rely on TCC. Norfolk-based Earl Industries teamed with TCC to restart a dormant apprenticeship program for ship-repair mechanics. It combines supervised on-the-job learning with two nights of classes a week at TCC. “It’s been fantastic in helping us get skilled mechanics up to speed,” says Missy Thomas, the company’s HR director.
The apprenticeship program is especially critical since Earl Industries expects to lose up to 10 percent of its 600 workers to retirement within five years. Although not yet worried about the budget crunch, Thomas can’t help but wonder what might happen if the college has to endure further cuts. “If professors or classes aren’t available, it’s going to hamper our ability to train a skilled work force to fill the void,” Thomas says.

Meanwhile, in the Richmond area the loss of several major employers, including Circuit City and LandAmerica, has thrust thousands of people into the job market. The bad employment news is prompting more people to return to college to chart their next move. Overall enrollment at J. Sargeant Reynolds is at 19,000 students, a one-year jump of 11 percent. “We’ve gone from an all-time high to all-time-higher enrollment,” says President Gary Rhodes.

Demand for work-related noncredit training is soaring, too. The Community College Workforce Alliance provided training to roughly 22,000 employees at 800 companies last year. So far this year, nearly 700 companies have asked for work-force services, says Mac McGinty, the Alliance’s vice president. McGinty doesn’t see demand slackening anytime soon.
Such is the dilemma facing Virginia’s community colleges. Since 2001, the number of Virginia companies relying on community college-based work-force training has risen steadily. Dubois says that proves the value and cost effectiveness of the colleges’ training efforts. The immediate challenge is finding the funding to keep pace with demand. 

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