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Building the Perfect Workforce

Finally, the IBTC also conducts skills assessments for Cargill. The company sends six to eight workers per month to the center who are being considered for the company's maintenance team. The cost to Cargill is less than it would be if company employees conducted the assessments, according to Cargill’s training manager, Kim Barfield.

Savings through Custom Training
In 1998, Northrop Grumman Corporation signed a contract with the Navy to design the next generation of large-deck aircraft carriers at its Newport News, Va., location. This meant the company would need at least 600 additional trained employees, including ship designers, welders, electrical engineers, and other skilled workers. To fill the gap, the company had to pull from all existing pools of workers in the area. Northrop Grumman managers worked with Thomas Nelson Community College to customize its training partnerships, creating a comprehensive three-part program: a high school dual-enrollment program; a design co-op, which teaches shipbuilding and provides paid training combined with work experience to workers at any age; and a four- to five-year shipbuilding training program. This approach allowed Northrop Grumman and Thomas Nelson to tap prospective workers from different demographic segments by reaching out to high school students, the unemployed, and those in search of a career change.

Northrop Grumman saved about $80,000 per employee per year of training with its local made-to-order training program. It didn’t have to recruit and relocate employees and send them through a generic educational program and follow that with additional training in the company’s unique protocol and processes.

Making It Work
In partnering with a community college, businesses should start by understanding how the local systems work. Although most community colleges operate independently of one another within their statewide networks, in some states, such as Virginia and Indiana, community colleges work closely with a state director. This can cut both ways — if your company or industry is among the priorities of the state’s economic development plans, a workforce training program may find great support. If not, your company may end up scrambling for support of the program it wants to build.

In the planning stages, be prepared to spend time developing the program, in addition to possibly funding part of it. Cargill was involved from the start with the Indian Hills programs, devoting management time to developing the curricula, although no one kept tabs on exactly how much time. When the IBTC was launched, Cargill donated land and equipment.

Similarly, Northrop Grumman donated $50,000 worth of time and equipment per year to the program at Thomas Nelson. School officials estimate that the company commits nearly $2 million per year to all aspects of the pipeline, including the salaries of apprentices, training fees, and tuition reimbursement. However, Northrop Grumman estimates that its return on investment is more than $6.00 for every $1.00 it spends, based on the productivity of properly trained employees, decreased turnover, reduced hiring costs, more efficient use of managers’ time, and other factors.

It is essential that companies assess their needs to ensure that training programs are developing the right skills. In addition to regular contact with managers, the IBTC has a panel of corporate representatives that meets twice a year to discuss the effectiveness of the program and to ensure that it keeps pace with technological developments. Recently, the panel reported that the food-processing course needed more emphasis on process control — the automated monitoring of pH level, temperature, flow, and other conditions — because innovations in technology had made that a bigger part of the job. As a result, the program was overhauled to double the time devoted to that subject.

These programs work better when they support an industry cluster rather than an individual company, says Robert P. Leber, director of education and workforce development at Northrop Grumman and chair of the Virginia Workforce Council. In most cases, a regional or state economic development group is involved to help find ways to stabilize the program, even during times when hiring may be slow at a particular company. In Northrop Grumman’s case, building a large ship is like “a python eating a pig,” he says, meaning that the company has a vast need for students coming out of the school’s welding, electrical, and other shipbuilding-related programs as it begins work on a new project. However, as the ship nears completion, demand wanes, so the college has developed relationships with other companies, including a truck manufacturer that requires similar skill sets, to keep employment options open for students coming out of the program.

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  1. Gary Paul Green, Workforce Development Networks in Rural Areas: Building the High Road (Edward Elgar Books, 2007): Discusses the specific challenges of training prospective employees in rural areas and includes the role of community colleges.
  2. William J. Rothwell and Patrick E. Gerity, eds., Linking Workforce Development with Economic Development: A Casebook for Community Colleges (American Association of Community Colleges): An overview of best practices in workforce development initiatives.
  3. Community College Times Web site: The workforce development section covers news about community colleges partnering with business and government institutions.
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