Give employers what they want and both students and business will benefit.
That's the idea behind a landmark $10 million federal grant that three community colleges, including two in the Greater Lehigh Valley, are using to fuel job growth for in-demand careers.
By collaborating with each other and local businesses in designing the programs, the three colleges are offering industry-specific job training on new equipment and skill-building opportunities that became reality thanks to the grant.
In September 2014, Northampton Community College in Bethlehem Township learned it would receive $10 million from the U.S. Department of Labor to be shared with Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville and Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke.
The lead fiscal agent, NCC received the grant a month later and started planning programs and initiatives with its partners, targeting health care, advanced manufacturing and transportation/logistics.
Pennsylvania's Advanced Training and Hiring-administered grant brings career-based training through courses offered at each college to provide employers with better-skilled workers for careers in demand.
These are sustaining-wage jobs in high-demand occupations, said Mike Salute, executive director of PATH. As an example, advanced manufacturing is a target because companies increasingly need people who can maintain machines rather than just run them.
Salaries for positions tailored for these programs can pay $16 to $45 per hour in manufacturing and $13 to $24 per hour in health care.
“All of these come with industry-recognized credentials,” Salute said, referring to the programs. “We make our welding programs tie into what they [employers] are looking for.”
Nearly 20 industry partners signed with the project, including regional companies such as Victaulic, Mack Trucks, Pocono Medical Center, Just Born Inc., B. Braun Medical Inc. and Fresh Pet Kitchens. Seven economic development partners throughout northeast Pennsylvania also are on board.
“When they signed on, it was a proud moment for the three colleges,” Salute said. “They had to prove they were pretty well entrenched with the major employers in the region.”
Salute and several other members of PATH are employed by NCC to oversee the grant, ensure the money is well spent and to launch a framework so that initiatives go into production.
Since the programs launched in 2014, many students switched industries based on demand or new skills needed to re-enter the workforce after being unemployed or to get a better opportunity.
Employer input was key to the launch. It created a team that collaborates on planning and designing equipment, gives high priority to employing graduates and, in some cases, donates equipment for student training so they get working-world experience in the classroom.
At Lehigh Carbon Community College, the grant gives a voice to employers, said Ann Bieber, college president.
“Who knows better about what's going on at the manufacturing floor than the employer?” she said.
Their input allows the college to gear programs and initiatives to help students learn specific industry skills.
Two years into the four-year grant cycle, that's exactly what's happening at Lehigh Carbon, she said.
“You are not just going through all the curriculum,” Bieber said. “It allows us to customize the training at LCCC.”
Often, students find employment while completing the training much faster than a traditional four-year degree and sometimes while still in the classroom.
As an example, St. Luke's University Health Network snapped up an entire class of health care administrative assistants at Lehigh Carbon, said Marco Anglesio, assistant director of grant operations at PATH.
Aside from St. Luke's, many local employers have hired students directly from these programs, including Just Born, Americold Logistics, Remco, Coordinated Health, Sacred Heart Hospital and KidsPeace, Bieber said.
The grant allowed the colleges to buy equipment required to train students, particularly for manufacturing.
Lehigh Carbon, for example, now has a programmable logic controller in a replicated clean room, simulating what pharmacy technicians would find.
In 2015, NCC completed renovations to Hartzell Technology Hall, NCC's Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
The center is now filled with high-tech equipment geared for 21st century manufacturing and technology education. The grant funded most of the renovations and equipment, which includes new welding stations, a virtual reality welding lab and new instrumentation lab.
The center includes advanced training equipment in electronics and computer-aided design as the college gutted more than 3,100 square feet.
“It's a much different place than it once was,” said Mark Erickson, president of NCC. “It's much more connected to the businesses we are serving.”
Erickson said, from his perspective, the colleges have successfully employed programs to fulfill the goals of the grant – to create training for students to learn skills in high-paying fields.
“It's doing all the things I hoped it would do,” he said. “I think the timing was perfect both for the colleges but also for the business community of the Valley. This is all part of a much bigger puzzle that's coming together in the Valley in terms of workforce development.”
Erickson said the grant helped all three colleges make more meaningful connections with businesses, orienting them to careers in demand, something he expects to continue the next two years.
The colleges have another year of training for the program, followed by an additional year of data collection, Bieber said.
“We've already served the numbers we've committed to in the grant,” she said. “We are going to exceed our expectations, and that's really valuable to the employees.”
Erickson said the grant establishes programs that will remain in place long after the four years are over, unless workforce needs shift.
With the grant, students can emerge with a diploma and work their way to an associate degree, Anglesio said.
“The programs will continue to support them; that's the long-term impact of this federal grant,” he said.
Those overseeing the PATH grant will continue to support students through March 2018, Anglesio said.
After the grant money runs out, equipment will stay, programs will remain in place and industry partners are expected to continue their support. Employers can continue to seek graduates to hire, as well as send guest lecturers and participate in curriculum design.
The colleges also have a need for smaller companies to support their efforts.
“We are looking for employers who aren't necessarily the big-name companies but have time and attention to give shop talks and visit,” said Shane Baglini, marketing and outreach specialist for PATH.
These companies can include smaller health care businesses, diesel truck facilities and smaller manufacturers, he said.
Enrollment has been very good, Salute said.
“Now we are targeting employers; we are going to start doing kiosks at the mall, radio spots,” he said. “We need to make sure they understand when someone quits or they get a new order and a backlog, we have all these people trained and ready to go.”