By: Charles Slat
Educators and industry officials testified about the challenges of training workers for today's jobs during a rare congressional committee field hearing held Tuesday at Monroe County Community College.
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, was joined by U. S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, a subcommittee member, for the session that spanned more than two hours and dozens of work force topics.
Witnesses testified on two panels: one that explored the current economic and job climate and a second that discussed ways colleges are preparing grads for the work force.
The session was fueled by talk of a skills gap among employers a widespread complaint that employers are unable to find workers needed to compete for available jobs.
That was part of the impetus for the nuclear technology program that MCCC developed in concert with DTE Energy, explained Lynette Dowler, a DTE representative, among eight people called to testify. It's not easy to get a nuclear power plant operator just off the street, she said.
The college partnered with Lakeland Community College in Ohio to provide the first courses via distance learning while it finished work on its own curriculum.
The utility company sees a need for workers increasing due to expected retirements throughout the industry.
Asked by Rep. Walberg what advice she had for institutions of higher education, Ms. Dowler suggested that they have ongoing conversations with area employers about what job skills are needed and where the skills gaps exist.
Monroe County Commissioner Henry Lievens talked about the job climate in Monroe County, noting that unemployment was at 8.2 percent in February.
"I understand that's less than the state average, but still is unacceptable," he said.
He said he has an impression that there is a need for more skilled trades workers as well as those trained for professional service sector jobs.
Dan Fairbanks, a United Auto Workers international representative with the UAW- GM Skill Development & Training Department, said the union provides training and training incentives through its apprenticeship programs and via opportunities for advancement from the plant floor.
"One way to increase pay is to get into an apprenticeship program or become a team leader," he said.
Those testifying also discussed the importance of "soft skills."
Ms. Dowler said coop students and interns at DTE are mentored so they understand the importance of showing up on time, dressing appropriately or giving presentations. She said a co- op program is "a wonderful way to help coach and mentor young people."
Answering a question about whether enrollments are growing, Dr. David Nixon, MCCC president, said enrollment at his school was growing like gangbusters until last year, when it shrank. He suspects that it was the result of more students sacrificing schools for low- paying jobs that just would help them put food on the table.
He and Douglas Levy, director of financial aid at Macomb Community College, said Pell grants and other funds for education are crucial to their missions. "Attempting to balance the budget by reducing federal aid to students diminishes our odds of future success," Mr. Levy said.
Reps. Foxx and Walberg later said they gained insights from the hearing. "We always gather information at these that is surprising or new to use," Rep. Foxx said.
She said some of what she heard might be applied to discussions of student loan interest rates or reauthorization of the higher education act next year.