In 2005, Greenville, Mich., seemed like just another textbook tale of a town hit hard by plant closings: Several companies, including Electrolux, which was once Greenville’s leading employer, had abandoned the town between 2003 and 2005, resulting in the loss of more than 4,000 jobs. But Greenville got a chance to bounce back in January 2006, when United Solar Ovonic (USO), a subsidiary of Energy Conversion Devices, which manufactures solar energy components, considered a move to the area.
Representatives from Montcalm County, which includes Greenville, offered substantial tax credits and training funds as incentives to bring in USO. The company was concerned, however, that although the area had plenty of people seeking employment, they were not experienced in building complex solar panel components. So Montcalm County made an additional — and, as it turned out, conclusive — offer: It guaranteed that Montcalm Community College could, within six months, deliver a certificate training program for technicians based on job descriptions provided by the company. With that offer on the table, USO made the move to Greenville. By June 2007, Montcalm Community College was training 50 solar energy technicians; this allowed USO, later that year, to ramp up production at its facility ahead of schedule.
When an area offers a company the resources and incentives it needs to relocate but lacks skilled workers, the solution often lies with the local community college. Historically, these institutions have had one of two missions — providing either the first two years of the university experience as transfer institutions or training for people going directly into the workforce. Today, community colleges bridge the worlds of business, government, and education, says James McKenney, vice president of economic development and international programs at the American Association of Community Colleges. More than ever, they are creating fast-track training and workforce development programs that are backed by solid academic principles and remediation resources.
Training Programs that Work
Community colleges are good partners for companies such as food-processing giant Cargill Inc., which settle in places like Eddyville, Iowa, where they can find the resources they need. Corn, which Eddyville has in abundance, is a key crop for Cargill’s Iowa food-processing operations. The Des Moines River provides an abundant water supply, another critical element. Local utilities ensure that the company has sufficient energy to operate.
With those cornerstones in place, the only piece missing is a skilled workforce. In response to Cargill’s needs in Eddyville, nearby Indian Hills Community College launched a bioprocessing training program in 1996 — “a course that started in a closet,” says Janet Paulson, project coordinator of the Iowa Bioprocess Training Center (IBTC), a division of Indian Hills that now runs that course and many others. Cargill, which also has a pork-processing plant in nearby Ottumwa, Iowa, initially requested that the college offer specialized training for food-processing technicians. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the area’s food-processing industry grew, the college expanded its program, fueled by demand for technicians from Cargill, as well as from other local food-processing companies, including Ajinomoto USA Inc., Ajinomoto Heartland Inc., and Wacker Biochem Corporation. Finally, the college opened the US$2 million IBTC in 2004 with funding from those partner companies, as well as assistance from various state and federal government agencies and from two regional energy companies, which saw the benefit in keeping big food-processing customers well-supplied with skilled labor and thus tying them to the area. The IBTC averages an enrollment of 500 people per month, mostly incumbent workers who need further training.
With their government and business affiliations, community colleges are often well positioned to land state and federal grants for workforce development and training: When the IBTC was suffering from insufficient enrollment because of lack of awareness within the community, it applied for and received a U.S. Department of Labor grant for nearly $1 million. The grant covered programs to educate the college’s teachers in other departments about the bioprocessing and biofuel job training at the center, providing them with information about the opportunities available in these fields to take back to their classes. In other words, the Department of Labor paid for the center to educate people about the job openings at Cargill, Ajinomoto, and Wacker.