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Colleges collaborating with business to churn out skills-ready workforce

By , - Last modified: January 11, 2013 at 9:17 AM

Area community colleges work extensively with regional companies and state agencies to develop a skills-ready workforce. It is a challenging, ever present reality that provides locals with a wide range of occupations to choose from.

Northampton Community College (NCC) has an advisory committee of company and agency representatives that guides curriculum development for both credit and noncredit programs.

Dr. Paul Pierpoint, NCC'S Dean of Continuing Education, said the school is extremely active in working with hotels, restaurants and casinos as part of the school's hospitality program.

When Bethlehem's Sands Casino was gearing up to open in 2009, Pierpoint was developing a nine-credit state licensed program with the state Gaming Commission to train 500 table games dealers for the 24/7 operation.

Coursework includes the inner workings of table games such as poker, blackjack, craps, baccarat and roulette. NCC provides the teachers, while the Sands provides the casino-quality equipment. Over the past two years, more than 1,000 students have taken advantage of the program.

It's an ongoing course of study, with graduates working at not only the Sands, but also at the region's Mohegan Sun and Mount Airy casinos. Others have since headed for the Jersey Shore and the gambling mecca of Atlantic City.

Upon completion of training, a state gaming license must be obtained in order to work in a casino.

“It's a popular 12-week program with entry level salaries ranging from $35,000 to $40,000,” said Pierpoint. 'If a graduate wants to go further with his education a two-year hotel management degree is available at NCC.”

Dr. Robert Vaughn, vice president of Work Place Development at Reading Area Community College (RACC), deals with a Gold Collar Advisory Group of local manufacturers to discuss the region's labor needs. Vaughn actively meets with the Berks County Worker Investment Board.

RACC has an Advanced Manufacturing program that trains students in one of four areas: production technician, machine operation, industrial maintenance technician and mechatronics technician. Mechatronics is the combination of mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, computer engineering, software engineering, control engineering, and systems design engineering in order to design and manufacture useful products.

Coursework ranges from eight to 16 weeks; career coaches work one on one with each student. Thanks to Department of Labor funding, the Production Technician training course is free.

The program has become popular because of the Reading area's concentration of highly technical manufacturing facilities.

“Career counseling is offered from the beginning so students are enrolled in appropriate programs,” said Vaughn.

“In health care, for instance, a student may think she should go into the Certified Nurse Assistant program when she's actually ready for the Registered Nurse program right after high school.”

Other issues must be overcome.

“We have to change the mindset people have about manufacturing jobs,” he noted. “They used to be considered dirty and grimy but are now very technical and clean.”

Scott Lindenmuth, director of Lehigh Carbon Community College's JobTrackPA program, said manufacturing jobs are growing because of the accessibility I-78 provides Lehigh Valley businesses. He works extensively with Pennsylvania's CareerLink program which provides funding for training.

“We have new manufacturers coming into the area that require employees to have certain skill sets, like blueprint reading or welding,” he said “Many want production workers that are also capable of fixing the equipment in a line that's down.”

LCCC offers certificate programs in Advanced Manufacturing and Logistics, Green Energy and Healthcare Information Technology. Not all students are recent high school graduates; many adults enroll after layoffs or for a career change.

Lindenmuth says many companies not only want advanced skills in new hires but also want employees with real-world experience. Towards that end, companies work with staffing agencies and use temporary employees as a hiring pool.

CareerLink has a “work and learn” program that places students in internships at half pay to get on-the-job training.

Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry tracks “in demand” jobs.

Industrial engineering technicians will see an 8.3 percent job growth through 2020, machinery mechanics will grow 7.06 percent, and machine operators will see a 10 percent growth rate.

Health care related occupations – RNs, pharmacists, nurse aides, lab technicians, phlebotomists, physical therapists, occupational therapists – will continue to skyrocket in growth from 40 percent for nurse aides to nearly 20 percent for lab technicians.

All three community colleges have programs in place for health care employment – a field that is continually growing to keep pace with the region's aging population.

Pennsylvania's unemployment rate of 7.8 percent for November of 2012 was considered low compared to regional rates. Berks County was at 8 percent, Lehigh County at 8.7 percent and Northampton County at 8.4 percent.

By making major changes to its majors, area schools of higher education are hoping to reverse that trend and give businesses another good reason to set up shop here in the Lehigh Valley.

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