To stay employed, the workforce of the future will need to adapt to more frequent change and be ready to learn new skills quickly. “People must have enough of the fundamental workforce skills to take on whatever job they are assigned,” says Linda Milstein, vice president of outreach, business and community development at Brookdale Community College and an activist in state-level community-college affairs. “That’s not a small thing; the individuals who are most successful these days are the ones who can adapt to a lot of change in their jobs, whether they are staying in the same company or moving to another one — by choice or because their current company is closing down.”

On July 14 President Barack Obama acknowledged the role community colleges can play in preparing our citizens with the skills they need to compete in the global economy and set out a 10-year, $1.2 billion program to strengthen these institutions. Noncredit training is particularly important now for individuals who are seeking short, intensive programs to gain new skills or switch careers.

A review of four area colleges — Mercer and Raritan Valley community colleges and Middlesex and Burlington County colleges — suggests that they are at least in step with Obama’s goals and may well be several steps ahead in their workforce training programs. Not only are they constantly courting businesses and scanning publications that evaluate current and future economic trends and their effects, they are always working in partnership to enhance their knowledge and effectiveness. These schools work closely with businesses, state business organizations, state government, county economic development offices, One-Stop Career Centers, and one another.

Although New Jersey’s county colleges are independent entities that set their own curricula, tuition, and hiring practices, by working together they have enhanced workforce training in New Jersey. The New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development, which includes all 19 New Jersey community colleges, was created to deliver consistent, statewide training so that businesses with employees in different counties would be able to arrange training through a single, statewide organization.

One current project of the consortium is the Basic Skills Workforce Training Program, which provides training in computer skills, math, literacy, English as a Second Language, and communication skills to employees of small and medium-sized businesses.

This effort, now in its third year, is funded by a state Department of Labor and Workforce Development grant to the NJ Business and Industry Association. The classes are free and do not require a minimum number of employees, but classes are held during regular working hours and employees must be paid at their usual hourly rate.

The consortium also has a contract with New Jersey utilities to provide workforce training for current and prospective employees, and it has a grant to provide biotech training to biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies throughout the state.

For the last six years the colleges have also joined together for the statewide alternate route teacher education program, New Pathways to Teaching in New Jersey, delivered in partnership with New Jersey City University. The alternate route is designed for individuals who want to enter the teaching profession after working in other careers. New Pathways is one of a number of alternate route programs approved by the state Department of Education but is the only one that is statewide and one of only a few offering graduate credit.

Because the program is offered on 15 community college campuses, students can enroll close to where they live or work and get the same graduate-level content and experience. “We all deliver the same curriculum,” says Milstein, who represents the community colleges with New Jersey City University. “Students have to meet the same standards, and we grade using the same assessment tools." About 450 students yearly complete the program, which combines classroom teaching and coursework.

Milstein grew up in Newark and Union and graduated in 1966 from Barnard College with a degree in East Asian Studies. She also earned a master’s and doctorate in adult and continuing education at Rutgers. She has been in her current position at Brookdale Community College for 12 years.

Several community colleges are also working together under the federal government’s Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development, or WIRED, grant. These grants bring together regions within a state or several states to develop the highly skilled workforces that will draw new companies into an area and keep the existing ones in place.

Milstein explains that the WIRED grants take a holistic view, embracing the entire educational landscape, from K-to-12 schools to community colleges and universities. The idea is to get students interested, as they are growing up, in the kinds of topics that will lead to higher education in — and careers based on — science, math, technology, and engineering. The research they do in college and graduate school and as post-docs will generate the creative ideas and new technologies that businesses need to thrive. Eventually those same students will be starting their own businesses or will have the workforce skills needed to populate existing businesses.

The Somerset County Freeholders have recognized the value of community colleges to the local economy, suggests Janet Perantoni, dean of corporate and continuing education at RVCC. The preliminary findings of a study of economic development funded by the freeholders found three industries the county should foster — nanotech/biotech, biorelated information technology, and geospatial technology — and named RVCC as one of the institutions to support these new industries.

In terms of workforce training, a significant number of people are referred from the state’s network of One-Stop Career Centers, which are overseen by Labor and Workforce Development. Community colleges, listed as training providers, are in regular contact with the One-Stops to keep them informed about both continuing and new offerings. Milstein observes, “President Obama’s support will definitely reinforce that connection and make it stronger.”

Virgen Velez, director of the Mercer County One-Stop Career Center, notes that the flow of unemployed workers has not stopped. “It’s across the board; the people coming in are being laid off from all kinds of businesses, not one particular sector versus another,” she says. “We have people from retail and administrative all the way up to high-level management, and it hasn’t changed much in the past few months.”

Through individual training accounts, the One-Stop will pay up to $4,000 of tuition, funded by the Workforce Investment Act, to train workers who were laid off through no fault of their own. The One-Stop will evaluate the person’s background and skill level, says Velez.

“With federal stimulus funding, we are seeing some expanded opportunities for people to be trained,” she says. The goal of this extra funding is to train more people and get them back into the workforce as quickly as possible.

Mercer’s One-Stop has close working relationships with both Mercer County Community College and the Mercer County Technical School, says Velez.

“Whenever we have a new initiative or a new project, we say, ‘Who is the best entity to spearhead this?’”

“We have started in recent months to meet with the community college on a regular basis to discuss these things, strategize, and develop programs and initiatives,” says Velez. “In this economy you really have to focus on the customer.”

“The college is one of our primary providers of classroom training,” says Velez. “They will tell us, ‘This is high demand; we’re getting lots of students,’ and they keep us informed as to what programs and courses they have available.”

The One-Stop in turn lets the college know what kinds of skills area businesses are advertising for.

The state Department of Labor is now trying to stretch training dollars through an initiative that would train workers for some jobs in bulk rather than through individual training accounts.

“This is lower cost and allows us to train more people for the same amount of money,” says Velez.

Middlesex County College is also working with its One-Stop to retrain dislocated workers. “Many manufacturing companies have closed down,” says Mary Ann Conners, dean of corporate and community education at Middlesex Community College. “And many people are grappling with what to do in the next part of their lives.”

Middlesex is offering intensive classes that can last up to six months, funded either by the One-Stop or through private pay, in accounting, electronics for green jobs, truck driving, and allied health.

To accommodate the influx of dislocated workers, Middlesex has had to modify its class schedules for students who are required to spend 20 hours per week in training and need daytime slots. “In the past,” says Conners, “the most popular times were in the evenings and weekends.”

Conners touches on another important issue facing dislocated workers. “There are more lower-paid jobs out there, and people frequently need to have more than one,” she says.

To do this, they need to quickly acquire certifications that will qualify them for new jobs, for example, as a yoga instructor. The college’s noncredit bulletin emphasizes the connection between this new certification and potential work: “Opportunities for employment as a yoga instructor exist in all types of settings — hospitals, doctors’ offices, businesses, municipal centers, senior centers, schools, fitness institutions and yoga studios.”

When federal and state programs give funds to a college to develop a program, they consider it an investment, says Conners. “They will expect us to come up with templates or models that can be replicated in areas similar to ours.” Conners grew up in southern Illinois, near St. Louis. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father a railroad engineer.

After graduating from St. Louis University with a degree in English, she spent a year in a graduate program in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She eventually got her master’s from Monmouth University. Conners has worked in continuing education since 1981, spending nine years at Fairleigh Dickinson and a brief period as dean at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. She has been at Middlesex for almost 18 years.

Community college leaders always have their ears to the ground to gather information about what the community needs. “One of our most valuable resources is one another,” says Lynn Coopersmith, dean of organization development and community programs at Mercer County Community College, “but in each of our communities, we are all out all the time at chambers of commerce and economic development offices. We have to have our tentacles out there in every possible way.”

Coopersmith adds that her husband is always teasing her because she writes down the name of any new business they encounter when driving around. Why does she do it? “Because I know we need to follow up and know who they are and what they need,” she says.

Community colleges also develop close relationships with businesses, which will sometimes support programs that provide the training they need. Obama recognized this connection in his recent policy speech on community colleges. “There are all kinds of examples of what’s possible. We’ve seen Cisco, for example, working with community colleges to prepare students and workers for jobs ranging from work in broadband to health IT,” he said. And in fact Raritan Valley, in partnership with Cisco Corporation, is offering three courses toward a mini-certificate in networking. Although Cisco is not local, area businesses might use people who are Cisco-certified.

A few years ago Mercer introduced two programs in partnership with the Human Resources Management Association, based on Alexander Road, for people experienced in human resources who want to prepare for two professional certifications. These intensive courses are more advanced than what might have been offered a few years ago, says Coopersmith.

Obama heartily endorsed such partnerships. “We know that the most successful community colleges are those that partner with the private sector. So we want to encourage more companies to work with schools to build these types of relationships,” he said. “That way, when somebody goes through a training program, they know that there’s a job at the end of that training.”

The colleges also glean planning information from their own students about what kinds of training might be missing from their brochures. “It might be as simple as a practice review course for people out of school for several years,” observes Brenda Fisher, program director for workforce development at RVCC. “They might have credits, but haven’t done it for a long time.” Review courses cover areas ranging from supply chain management at Raritan to medical billing and coding at Mercer to information systems auditor at Burlington.

Using the data they receive from government and business sources, their students, and sister institutions, community colleges develop training that responds to broad, general needs and to the specific needs of businesses that exist or are expected to be developed in their counties.

Both Mercer and Raritan Valley community colleges have a large pharma and biotech presence, and each has taken advantage of the WIRED grant to serve that industry. “Ten years ago we started a clinical research program and partnered with one of the largest clinical research organizations in the county to develop content,” says Coopersmith about Mercer’s offering. “They couldn’t find, identify, and hire enough clinical research associates to serve their needs, but our certificate in drug development and clinical research has helped them fill that skill gap. Now, thanks to the Bio1 WIRED grant, we are planning to supplement the certificate program with additional courses in order to better prepare participants to meet the needs in the area of clinical trials.”

Looking forward to a growing industry around drug safety, Mercer also added a related 36-hour course last semester in pharmacovigilance, which the catalog defines as “clinical and post-marketing drug safety surveillance.”

RVCC has an extensive training program in biotechnology that includes both credit and noncredit options: an associate’s program designed for transfer to a four-year college and, for students interested in entering the workforce immediately, a certificate in biotechnology designed to re-train dislocated workers for entry-level positions in bio-manufacturing. If individuals matriculate after training, they get college credit.

The college worked with ImClone Systems, an oncology R&D firm with a location in Branchburg, to develop the accelerated classroom and lab course and then developed an on-the-job-training component that requires an extensive interview process to ensure an individual can complete the training.

Out of about 40 individuals who have gone through the program, 36 have been placed in jobs.

Students who complete the program are able to work in almost any lab setting with the knowledge of lab protocol and an understanding of good manufacturing practices.

In response to the aging of the U.S. population, community colleges have started to expose students to gerontology. About 15 people have already completed a new gerontology certificate program at Mercer, which provides a broad overview of issues facing the aging population as well as the services and housing options available to them (see profile of Shirley Roberts on page 10).

Because the program is very general, says Coopersmith, students and practitioners have requested more in-depth career preparation, and the college is responding. “We are seeking funding to develop career tracks that will be more meaty and in depth, with a specific career outcome at the end,” she says. Middlesex County College also offers a certification program for eldercare specialists.

Within the allied health area, all four colleges have active programs with consistent enrollment; the training is often on campus and sometimes online, and the subject matter varies by campus. The colleges train EKG, pharmacy, and phlebotomy technicians and offer certification in medical coding.

The federal Department of Labor recently awarded Burlington County College a community-based job training grant of close to $1 million. To address the need for training within the medical coding and health information technology industry in southern New Jersey, the three-year grant will support a collaboration between the college and Shore Memorial Hospital, AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, and Deborah Heart and Lung Center, where 80 coders will work toward certifications as coding specialists.

The colleges also train medical office administrators and dental radiologists. At the request of its One-Stop, Mercer offers certifications for certified nurse aides as does Raritan Valley, and both have more advanced certifications — Mercer in advanced home health aide, and Raritan in patient care technician I and II. Middlesex and Burlington offer certification as a personal trainer.

Under the broader business umbrella, colleges offer management certificates and training as well as classes more specific to industries in their counties. All four offer a project management certificate as well as training in Six Sigma techniques. Burlington, Mercer, and Middlesex offer certificates in human resources, and Raritan Valley, an APA Payroll professional learning series.

Logistics is also gaining in importance. Burlington offers a certificate in logistics and supply chain management as well as one in transportation and logistics through the Delaware Valley Chapter of the American Society of Transportation and Logistics, whereas Raritan Valley has one in materials and supply management. Because Middlesex is a prime location for warehouses in New Jersey, the college has recently created training for workers in the transportation, logistics, and distribution sector.

In the technical area, all colleges offer training in Microsoft products and web design. Mercer also has a certificate in graphic design.

Middlesex has invested in three laptop labs equipped with 16 computers each that facilitate computer training onsite at companies. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of training using laptop labs,” says Conners. “In the past year the college delivered 29 programs at business locations. This flexibility and is important to organizations.”

Training in construction management and the uniform construction code are offered by all colleges except Raritan Valley.

Scattered across the colleges is training in electronic security, commercial driver’s licenses, material handling equipment, auditing information systems, software testing, ESL teaching, international trade, and nonprofit management.

Yet community colleges are training not only for existing jobs but also those that might be, says Milstein. One of these areas is green training, where all offer some training, but are also feeling their way toward the future. “It is an interesting time to be involved in green training,” observes Milstein. “We are on the cusp of a tremendous area of growth, and it affects every kind of job.” (See sidebar, page 35).

Sometimes workforce training does take place in the college’s credit division, says Sharon Rogers, associate dean for business development at Burlington County College. The biotechnology program at Burlington, for example, prepares students to be laboratory technicians in research and industrial laboratories, including pharmaceuticals.

Rogers grew up in Willingboro and received a bachelor’s in business administration and a master’s degree in education from William Patterson University. She worked for about 10 years as an import manager at Sequoyah International, an import company in New York City. Once she and her husband decided to have a family she decided to leave her job and started working for Passaic County College; she then worked for Dover College and the Cittone Institute before coming to Burlington County College, where she has been for 16 years.

Noncredit classes at community colleges have evolved over the last decade from personal interest classes to a focus on career preparation and advancement, but interest has shifted again in the current downturn — away from improving skills for existing jobs and toward training for new careers. “A lot of people don’t have careers to advance anymore,” observes Janet Perantoni, who has seen large numbers of highly educated, white-collar workers in Somerset and Hunterdon counties, many in the financial industry, lose their jobs.

Perantoni grew up in Nebraska and got a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Nebraska. After moving to New Jersey, she got a master’s in adult education from Rutgers.

She has worked in continuing education at Raritan Valley Community College for 28 years. She started in program development and then moved into management. The division now has seven staff members.

With these displaced professionals in mind, community colleges are running some training classes that require at least a bachelor’s degree — for example, the drug development and clinical research program. Many students even have advanced degrees. “In past years people would not have thought of coming to a community college for that level of coursework,” says Coopersmith.

Colleges have also had to adjust to the changing needs of students aged 50 and older. “Many are in positions where they are seeking to change careers,” observes Milstein. “Although they may have been thinking about retirement, now they either want or need to get another job.” Brookdale Community College has partnered with the National Council on Aging to provide workforce training in the healthcare field for this segment “who might have been considered post-career but are not,” adds Milstein.

Middlesex has also served older workers who might need new skills to continue in or advance their careers. “We get attorneys, CPAs, and doctors,” says Conners. “They might be considering a transition into a new career because they’re being downsized or are looking for a change.” In addition to training, the colleges are providing hands-on workshops and informal counseling to ease career transitions.

Although all the colleges have career counseling offices with all the bells and whistles, Coopersmith is finding that with the economic downturn more people are turning to her staff for advice about what direction to take. “More and more we are trying to listen to what people have done in the past and just make some suggestions about how those skills may be transferable,” she says. “We are careful not to claim we are career counselors, but we can show people what resources are available and go through our program possibilities and see if folks think there is a good match.”

Sometimes they see people, desperate for work, who might be thinking about a career not appropriate for them. People seeking information about the alternate route program for teaching, for example, often realize it is not for them once they learn the requirements and career prospects.

Or people might be having a hard time getting enough distance from a job they had for years to be able to decide on a new direction. “People who have been in a position over a long period of time are identified with that position and don’t know how to translate their talents into other roles,” says Perantoni. “Counseling opens avenues that they haven’t thought about.”

The different community colleges also function as an informal referral network to provide students with the programs they need. “If someone comes in and asks for program X and we don’t offer it, we wouldn’t hesitate to send them to another college,” says Coopersmith. “Often we tell people to explore the surrounding community colleges and see if there is something that more closely fits what they are looking for.”

Recently Coopersmith has seen increasing interest in online courses, and Mercer, along with the other community colleges, has partnered with online course provider ed2go. So far, she says, they have gotten very good reviews. The courses that Mercer is offering through ed2go can be viewed at

Another direction in workforce training by community colleges on a more national scope is being pursued by Burlington County College’s president, Robert Messina. Three years ago at his behest the college joined a national training organization called the Global Corporate College entity, headquartered in Cleveland. The organization uses one or two colleges in each state to provide training that follows a centralized curriculum.

The value for businesses is that employees from different states will be trained from the same curriculum. Walmart, for example, might want to train its floor people in several states. Trainers from several states would go to one location to learn the curriculum and then home to teach employees at local Walmarts. “If a company has a footprint across the U.S.,” says Rogers, “it unifies and gives continuity to the training.” Burlington has been very successful in this enterprise, she says, having already done training in at least 24 venues.

Given the increased demand for workforce training in the current downturn, staff members whose functions used to be relatively independent have to work together more closely to develop and deliver more complex programs. “In the past we worked in silos,” says Conners. “Now we are collaborating on program development and even in program delivery because we have limited resources.”

Another consequence of the current downturn that Rogers has observed is companies moving dollars from customized training into other areas. As a result, she says, community colleges need to educate companies on the importance of training and how to use their training dollars more wisely. Training helps in retaining employees, who will be more loyal if they see their employers investing in them. To help these companies, Burlington has developed a blended education option, with both online and classroom training, so that employees do not have to leave the work floor for as long.

The economic climate, says Rogers, has also made corporations reevaluate sending people out of the state or country for training, and they are looking instead to their local community colleges.

Coopersmith was the first in her family to go to college. Her father owned a vending machine business in New York and her mother worked in a retail shop. After graduating from Brooklyn College with a degree in education, she worked as a third-grade teacher, then moved away from New Jersey and stayed home for a few years with her children. When the family moved back to New Jersey, she says, “I needed to air out those cobwebs and got a master’s degree in education at Rutgers.” When she finished, in 1986, she started working for MCCC. Coopersmith also has a doctorate in higher education administration from Nova Southeastern University.

She started as coordinator for cooperative education and moved up through several positions where she helped people explore what they wanted to do with their careers. Then she moved to the James Kerney Campus where she was director of adult education programs. “At whatever level people are, I like to help them move forward and get to that next step,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to continuing education.”

“It is a very interesting time to be in community colleges,” observes Milstein. “We always thought we were under the radar screen, and that the big research universities were getting the notice and were in the spotlight. This initiative puts us firmly at the top of the agenda, and we have to be ready to respond to that.”

Although Obama will bring more money to community colleges, it is still questionable whether the added funding will meet the increased expectations and demand, adds Milstein.

“The broad scope of what we do to meet workforce training needs is one of reasons President Obama is so focused on community colleges,” says Milstein.

Coopersmith captures the power of community colleges in a single sentence: “Our strength is our incredible ability to just sense an idea and a need, jump on it, and have it developed and ready to offer within a semester.”

“That’s what makes my job fun,” she concludes. “We’re never bored here.”

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