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Bridge Michigan
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Community college degrees in demand

To see the difference between yesterday’s skilled-trade career and today’s, Michael Hansen offers what’s happening at BOSS Products, a snowplow manufacturer in Iron Mountain.

The president of the Michigan Community College Association describes entering a welding shop, expecting to see “guys in hoods and greasy overalls.” Hardly. The work was done by robots, with the human element consisting of “guys in sweaters and khakis, operating the machines.”

And the difference between those two versions of the same job is the reason training at a community college is increasingly the baseline education credential for those seeking the sort of job they might have learned as an apprentice out of high school a generation ago. Not because a two-year school will teach a student how to match sweaters and khakis. But because manufacturing, and the skills required to prosper in the field, has changed so much.

Today’s welder may work in a clean, bright, computer-driven factory, but that worker may also need to do math far beyond those of a previous generation, as well as troubleshoot problems on a factory floor.

Data analysis commissioned by Bridge indicates associates degree holders enjoy one of the few bright spots in the job picture for the next decade in Michigan, with a 13.3 percent increase in available jobs over 2013. The jobs projected to be created as the economy changes will pay $4.16 more than the same categories of jobs being lost. To conduct the analysis, Bridge used projections made by Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., in Idaho, based on federal Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Which comes as no surprise to people like Hansen, and the businesses clamoring for the people they’re training.

Tim Nelson, president of Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, puts it bluntly: Higher-level thinking, analytical skills, problem-solving, entrepreneurial spirit – these are all traits employers look for in staffing even lower-level jobs, not just in manufacturing but health care and other fields. And “if you can’t do that, the world will find a way to get a machine to do (your job),” he said. Life has moved well beyond the assembly line.

“A lot of people call these ‘middle-skills’ jobs; that is, more than high school and less than a bachelor’s degree,” said Hansen, who said that by 2020, 60 percent of all new jobs will require training at this level. It’s a trend that will be driven in part by demographics, as an aging nation with a transforming health-care industry expands its allied-health job force. It’s reflective of a similarly evolving manufacturing field, which is reasserting itself in the region, in search of a different sort of worker. And it’s reflective of a world embracing new technology – as one example, one of the hottest fields at Northwest Michigan is in unmanned aerial systems operation training, i.e., drones.

“Those people are being hired before they get their degrees,” said Nelson, adding that one-third of anticipated spring graduates of the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, housed at the same school, have jobs waiting as soon as they shed their caps and gowns.

At a time when graduates of four-year institutions are finding tough going in their own job searches, community college students at least have the advantage of a clear purpose. Hansen said officials work closely with employers to refine and otherwise adjust certificate and degree programs to the job market’s demands, analyzing labor-market data in specific sectors and regions to match demand to degrees, or at least, to degree offerings.

Along the way, they’re expected to learn not only the skills necessary to start in their fields, but the ones required to be a good employee, too.

“What (students are) asking for is in three or four current areas: Business, nursing, culinary and computer information systems. Those four have great interest,” said Fiona Hert, dean of the School of Workforce Development at Grand Rapids Community College. “But there’s also a series of skills employers want – punctuality, a team player, critical thinking, flexibility.” And these, she and others added, are the ones that will take students furthest in their careers.

“We’re entering a period when we see people getting ‘stackable credentials,’” said Nelson – skill sets that get a worker started in a career, to which he or she can keep adding. Businesses are looking for creative thinkers who can grow and change in an era when change is about the only thing anyone can count on.

Manufacturing is a prime example. Eight Michigan community colleges were named last week as recipients of $24.9 million in federal grants to better match students to fields with high worker demand. Not only are factory floors changing, but workers fleeing the state during its long recession left a talent vacuum employers need to fill, said Richard Shaink, president of Mott Community College in Flint.

And for those who believe a degree from a technical school offers only limited career horizons, Shaink points to newly appointed General Motors CEO Mary Barra, a 1985 graduate of the General Motors Institute, now known as Kettering University.

“It’s the same mindset of work mixed with education, co-op and internship,” Shaink said. “And look where it took her.”

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