Hidden gems: Community colleges may hold the key to manufacturing’s future workforce

Community colleges may hold the key to manufacturing’s future workforce.


According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 1,462 community colleges in the United States. By comparison, the Association of American Colleges identifies 2,618 four-year institutions currently operating. Despite accounting for only 35% of the colleges in the U.S., community colleges serve approximately 47% of all students, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. So, the odds are many of your employees studied their way through a community college at some point in their educational pursuit.Partnering with community colleges to jointly develop programs can help generate a qualified talent pool to fill your critical positions.

In addition to providing two-year degrees and preparing many students to transfer to a traditional four-year university, community colleges have evolved and adapted over time to provide a training ground for future manufacturing professionals.

There are three areas where community colleges can assist manufacturers looking to expand their workforce, or expand their training opportunities.

1. Grants

Training grants are dollars set aside, usually by various departments in the federal government, to prepare people to provide additional skills to an existing workforce so they can remain competitive and stay employed. The latter opportunity generally is referred to as an incumbent worker grant and these types of grants are funneled through each state in different formats.

Most community colleges have stepped up to become grant writers on behalf of local businesses to tap into these federal dollars. In many cases, a community college will rally several small employers to form a consortium to obtain grant dollars and address a recognized need in an area.

The benefits for employers is tremendous. Your company benefits not only from having workers with a better skillset, but you may not have to pay a single dollar for the training. Employees will feel empowered and valued, and the community college is able to use the grant money to pay their staff to provide the training. Everyone wins in these situations. I strongly urge employers to partner with their local community college to obtain these types of grants, as the grant process differs in each state – and the process itself can be daunting if you try to go it alone.

2. Recruiting

Another area where community colleges play a pivotal role is recruitment. Most schools have placement offices that work with local employers to help match qualified students with open positions in the area. Establish a relationship with your local school and partner with them to fill your open positions. Invite the placement office staff into your facility for a tour so that they can better understand your needs. This will help them deliver good matches for your open jobs.

In addition to knowing that someone is actively working to fill your open positions, you can take comfort in the fact the people being referred to you are actively working to better themselves by attending college, making this talent pool superior to the pool of applicants you might find with a generic ad in a local newspaper.

In addition, schools typically host job fairs throughout the year, which generate high levels of interest in job seekers. Job fairs usually have minimal costs to participate and can yield great results. The key to success is to partner with the school rather than just posting an open position. The more you put into the relationship the better the outcome will be for your recruiting efforts.

3. Curriculum collaboration

Community colleges have become extremely nimble in providing employers with opportunities to develop students for future jobs. Over the course of my career, I have partnered with community colleges across the country to develop curriculum to prepare students for specific positions within my manufacturing facilities, especially in plant maintenance classifications such as millwrights, computer numerical controlled (CNC) machinists, and industrial electricians.

Among the key strategies for making such a partnership work are:

  • Bring faculty into your facilities to help design worthwhile courses that fit your needs.
  • Make sure your subject matter experts are available to assist with technical knowledge to make the program rich with content.
  • Provide relevant equipment, or financial assistance, if needed.
  • Encourage your skilled retirees to participate as the school might be able to use their expertise in teaching specific skillsets to eager minds yearning to learn a skill or trade.

It doesn’t require a tremendous amount of time or money, and once a program is established the dividends it will yield in the form of a qualified talent pool to fill your critical positions should prove invaluable.

So, the next time you drive past your local community college, don’t let the image of Chevy Chase teaching a class be your perception. Know that a great resource for your company and those wishing to stretch themselves are patiently waiting for you to call.

Billy Hamilton is senior vice president of human resources for Motion Industries, an industrial distributor which is also an active partner in community college training initiatives

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