Community Colleges Tackle Retraining Challenge in Coal Country - Higher Education
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Community Colleges Tackle Retraining Challenge in Coal Country

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by Lois Elfman

The core community college mission of workforce training received a huge positive jolt through a series of grants designed to assist communities and workers negatively impacted by changes to the coal industry.

Community colleges are o­ften on the front lines in educating people about fields such as automotive technology, nursing and business. In rural communities not located in proximity to four-year institutions, two-year colleges are the only entry point to higher education.

121916_powerFor areas of the United States for which a significant number of jobs are or were connected to the coal industry, there is a need to diversify the job skills of the population, and community colleges play a vital role. Several colleges are now better able to meet the needs of a changing work world thanks to grants from the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Re-vitalization (POWER) Initiative.

Driven by President Barack Obama’s efforts to assist negatively impacted communities, POWER is a community-based administration effort involving 10 federal agencies working together to propel the economies in coal country.

“Community colleges are leaders in workforce development across Appalachia, especially as the region’s economy continues to change,” says Wendy Wasserman, director of communications of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which is administering the grant awards along with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA).

“As the energy economy evolves, community colleges have continued to take the lead in developing innovative and impactful workforce training programs in a variety of sectors,” says Wasserman.

Grants and funding

As the voice for the business community in the federal government, the Commerce Department has brought business leaders to the table to define precisely what they are looking for in prospective employees now and in the future. Successful grant applicants addressed those priorities and objectives.

Hocking College in Ohio began working on its workforce development Appalachia RISES (Revitalizing an Industry-ready Skilling Ecosystem for Sustainability) project in February 2016. In October, the college announced the launch of the $2 million project, about $1.4 million of which came from a POWER Initiative. POWER grants fuel workforce development and assist communities negatively impacted by changes to the coal industry.

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ARC grants address needs in advanced energy, automotive technology, petroleum technology, welding and commercial driving.

“We will be offering traditional automotive technician programming, including hybrid certification,” says Dr. Betty Young, president of Hocking. “We will be able to provide equipment that provides hands-on experience, simulation equipment that reduces risk to students learning new skills and provides more time on task for the students to develop their skills, including items such as a driving simulator for the commercial driving program and a welding simulator for the welding program.”

Centralia College in Washington State received a $301,916 POWER Initiative EDA grant for the Centralia College Robotics Workforce Training project, which will train the region’s workforce to use the most current robotics technology. Durelle Sullivan, dean of instruction for workforce education and the grant writer, says the grant funding will be used for the equipment needed for a new degree program in mechatronics (technology combining electronics and mechanical engineering) along with an industrial certification program in high-tech robotics programming.

“The grant will help in securing the equipment needed to bring more training programs to the area in order to train and retrain for high-tech jobs and attract new industry to the county to replace the jobs lost when the TransAlta power generation facility closes [in 2020],” says Sullivan. “The college has the facilities, instructors and certifications required to teach this new program but [until the grant] did not have the funding to purchase the needed volume of high-tech equipment.”

Developmental programs

Southwest Virginia Community College in Virginia received a $1.5 million ARC grant for its Southwest Virginia Regional Cybersecurity Initiative. The Virginia Tobacco Commission added an additional $258,790.

“The major purpose of this project is to build a pool of cybersecurity professionals and bring new jobs to the region,” says Dr. Barbara Fuller, vice president of academic and student services. “As part of a coordinated strategy to raise the profile of the region in the tech and innovation sectors, SWVA sought and received designation as a TechHire community, an initiative of the White House to create pathways to quality tech jobs and to meet employer demands through innovative training.

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“To pursue opportunities that could help the region to diversify the economy … we felt we needed to pursue sector-specific initiatives that integrate workforce and economic development strategies,” she adds. “The emerging cybersecurity industry holds promise to provide the region with high-wage, high-tech jobs while leveraging federal and state investments that have been made in the region.”

All the grant recipients have worked within the EDA’s vision for coordination between the institutions and businesses in their areas. EDA’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) is locally based and regionally driven.

“The CEDS is designed to analyze the regional economy and serve as a guide for establishing and implementing regional goals and objectives while integrating the region’s human and physical capital planning to support economic development efforts,” says CJ Epps, director of public affairs at the EDA. “By using community colleges as the vehicle to implement their regional competitiveness, economic development can be achieved by effective collaborative institutions focused on advancing mutual benefits for the public and private sectors.”

Prospects for the future

A $650,000 EDA grant went to Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, in support of the Innovation, Creativity & Entrepreneurship (ICE) House and ICE Accelerator Innovation Center. ICE House is a collaborative co-working center and innovation lab for community and campus entrepreneurs.

Although a four-year institution, there are no educational restrictions on program participants. In addition, WSCU is currently partnering with Delta Montrose Technical College and hopes to expand that relationship with the Innovation Center. ICE House has been in development for more than five years. The accelerator program became viable because of the EDA grant.

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Southwest Virginia Community College has taken rapid response teams to industry sites when layoffs have occurred, offering accelerated programs to assist individuals in returning to the workplace and reducing the time to degree completion.

“Through this grant, we hope to be a part of a cybersecurity hub whereby individuals can work remotely while remaining in the region,” says Fuller. “Southwest Virginians want to continue to live in the region and raise their families. We will continue to partner with sister colleges, economic developers, employers and community agencies in order to diversify and sustain our rural economy.”

Young says she believes Appalachia will be the next hub for renewable and clean energy in Ohio and the demand for such a workforce will be great.

“Hocking College will be ready to meet this demand with relevant, industry-guided training programs,” Young says. “This is where government support really makes a difference to families in communities that are devastated by changing economics. Without the financial support of grants like this one we simply could not develop this life-changing career programming.”

Centralia continuously evaluates its programming and curriculum and has just added a fifth bachelor’s degree program, an emerging trend in rural community colleges. Local industries have expressed interest in training existing workers and future workers and look to community colleges to provide customized programs.

“It is the hope that, with the new technology evolving, TransAlta will be able to convert from coal to a new energy resource,” Sullivan says.

ARC is a federal partnership with the governor’s office in each of the 13 states in the region. Wasserman encourages community colleges to develop partnerships with each state’s program managers.

“ARC’s mission is to innovate, partner and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia to help the region achieve socioeconomic parity with the nation,” says Wasserman. “The POWER Initiative is one of several ways we achieve this goal.”

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