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(originally published by Booz & Company)


A School for Displaced Workers

With industries contracting and jobless rates among manufacturing workers skyrocketing, community colleges have become the new home of retraining programs.

Ben Venue Laboratories Inc. is hiring. That, in itself, is a story. Located in the U.S. Midwest, where unemployment is approaching 20 percent in some areas, the maker of freeze-dried and injectable pharmaceutical products employs 1,200 people and is looking for at least another 100. The Bedford, Ohio–based manufacturer is one of the largest employers in the fledgling biotechnology and pharmaceutical corridor that industrial development authorities are trying to establish between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Considering recent severe job losses in its backyard, it would seem that Ben Venue’s search for workers would be a relatively easy task. But it’s not. Virtually none of the workers displaced from the auto, plastics, tire, or steel industries have the skills required to make drugs in sterile environments that meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

So Ben Venue process control manager Phil Mills has turned to Cuyahoga Community College’s Corporate College to develop a 160-hour course on pharmaceutical manufacturing for people interested in jobs at Ben Venue or other local drug companies. Mills and a team of five Ben Venue employees advised the community college (known as Tri-C) on what kind of equipment to buy for the courses — devices and apparel similar to those used in the company’s labs. The classes were first offered in mid-2008. “We’re trying to create a labor pool with some initial knowledge of what the pharmaceutical industry is all about,” says Mills, who also teaches some of the courses. Ben Venue has just hired its first graduate from the program.

This effort is one of hundreds under way at the nation’s 1,200 community colleges. Thanks to a wave of workers, mainly in their 40s and 50s, who have been displaced from industrial jobs because of automation, the emergence of increasingly complex products that require more skilled manufacturing techniques, or foreign competition, a debate is simmering in the U.S. about the role employers should play in helping to retrain workers. By and large, companies have been skittish about spending heavily on retraining programs because they are an expensive proposition with limited returns; in fact, the smartest workers who get the most out of the training can parlay it into higher-paying jobs at competing enterprises. As a result, companies are more than happy to let community colleges fill the vacuum.

The Tri-C program has a wide range of relationships with local employers. The Cleveland Clinic works with the school to teach job seekers the ins and outs of the medical and health-care fields. And in Tri-C’s Green Academy, former General Motors die makers are learning about manufacturing processes in solar energy plants producing photovoltaic cells. In a similar vein, Tri-C’s joint effort with Ford Motor Company drives a curriculum that teaches skills needed at the automaker’s Brook Park, Ohio, plant, which is gearing up to make a more energy-efficient engine called the EcoBoost. The program has an annual budget of about US$20 million, which comes from federal, state, and local governments as well as private foundations.

Similar efforts are being made in Texas, where four community colleges affiliated with Texas State Technical College are offering training in advanced fields ranging from robotics to biotechnology. In addition, enrollment in California’s community college system increased by 135,000 students this year, to a total of 2.9 million, partly because of a rush of displaced workers seeking certificates and degrees, particularly in environment-related fields.

President Barack Obama gave a big boost to these programs in July 2009, when he traveled to Macomb Community College in hard-hit Warren, Mich., and proposed $12 billion in new federal funding for community colleges. The administration has emphasized that a key purpose of the funding request, which is still pending, is to increase worker training.

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  1. John Moreno Gonzales, “Ailing Factory Towns Face Tougher Road to Recovery,” Associated Press, June 14, 2009: A look at the difficulties workers face in obtaining successful retraining.
  2. John Holusha, “Industry, Government and Labor Try to Plan for Workers’ Obsolescence,” New York Times, June 5, 1988: A snapshot of the retraining debate from more than 20 years ago.
  3. Louis Uchitelle, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (Vintage, 2007): A definitive look by a veteran New York Times correspondent at the problems displaced workers confront.
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