Community college task force emphasizes job creation

May 14, 2015

During the next decade, experts believe California businesses will create more than a million extra jobs that require some postsecondary training, like industry credentials or associate's degrees — but not necessarily bachelor's degrees — compared to the number of people its education system will prepare for those jobs.

That gap was noticed in a California Community Colleges study, and in response, the CCC last year assembled a Task Force on Workforce, Job Creation and a Strong Economy.

Last week, in a last-minute addition to the schedule after lobbying from Coachella Valley state legislators, the task force visited the valley to hear from business leaders and community college administrators in the region.

What they found at the Workforce Town Hall was a room packed with employers eager to hire locally, but worried about continuing to find workers with the skills they need.

"We have 109 employees, and 80 percent are associated with College of the Desert," said Vincent Battaglia, founder of Renova Solar, the largest solar company based in the desert. Solar energy employs around 600 people in the Coachella Valley.

Currently, Renova works "hand-in-hand" with the community college on a 60-hour training class, which prepares solar trainees for their accreditation test. But Battaglia is frustrated by how long it took the college to develop the program, and he worries the college isn't preparing students for renewable energy's next big challenge — battery storage.

"The more you show a commitment to being on the front line, addressing crises, the more I will continue to hire your students," Battaglia said.

Lance O'Donnell, owner of Palm Springs-based o2 Architecture, emphasized the importance of internship experience. "There's a saying that, (architect Donald) Wexler never did his first airport until he did his first airport," O'Donnell said.

Other business leaders asked College of the Desert, the Coachella Valley's only not for profit community college, to help facilitate more career academies in high schools, allow for increased specialization in their training programs and make it easier for businesses to host college interns.

"When we need to hire, we all need to hire the right people with the right skills at the right time," said Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor for Workforce and Economic Development at the California Community Colleges. "65 percent of workers will need to have credentials. We need to turn up the engine."

"Middle-skill" jobs requiring more and more skills

According to a 2013 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2020, more than 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require training beyond a high school diploma.

In the Coachella Valley, 55 percent of adults have credentials beyond high school diplomas and 24 percent have bachelor's degrees or higher, according to the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership's 2014 Coachella Valley Economic Report.

That means around 31 percent have some training beyond high school, but less than a bachelor's degree.

Those postsecondary credentials could include associate's degrees, industry accreditations and certificate programs. And numerous studies project this sector of the workforce — between high school diplomas and B.A.s or — growing rapidly in the next decade.

According to the California Community Colleges, a family of four needs a household wage of $60,700 to live in California. But five years after finishing a career or technical education program, people earns $66,000 on average.

"We are a two-year community college, and we're also a very important workforce training ground," said Aurora Wilson, a College of the Desert trustee. "We don't offer the master's degree, but what we do offer are those key jobs that are important at different levels of business — not just executive management positions, but also landscapers. We provide it all."

Each of these fields is growing more specialized and complicated, business owners said.

O'Donnell of o2 Architecture said he'd like new employees to enter the company knowing how to use software, but also with specialized knowledge of sustainability or durability. That might require training to start in high school, he said.

Greg Gritters of landscaping company Vintage Associates added that, as drought forces customers to adopt low-water-use landscapes, every employee needs to understand a number of different irrigation systems.

"We need to continue to be evolving with the technology," Wilson said. "Solar is such a fast-evolving area and I think we should be devoting even more effort to that. We have a great automotive technology program, but we could be doing more, because auto technology is changing so quickly. We need to make sure we're on top of our training."

Nursing: "I knew instantly I had to continue my training"

In the past, the "middle-skill" category has also included nurses, who can earn Registered Nurse certification without bachelor's degrees. But that may be changing.

Nearly half of nurses nationwide hold B.S. degrees now, and the National Science Foundation recommends that 80 percent earn B.S. degrees or higher by 2020.

Eusebio said she started her career with an associate's degree and "knew instantly that I had to continue my training."

"Nurses have to be at high levels of critical thinking, and meet many core standards simultaneously," Eusebio said at the town hall. "What I struggle with is finding a higher level nurse, who can take and instruct newer nurses."

She called on the community college system to provide easy-to-navigate bridges for A.D.N.-educated nurses to earn their bachelor's or master's degrees. CSU San Bernardino's Palm Desert campus offers such a program.

Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage estimates that half of its nurses will hold bachelor's degrees by August, according to chief nursing officer Ann Mostofi. The hospital also offers $5,200 per year to nurses who want to continue their education, which helped its nursing staff earn Magnet recognition in March.

Healthcare is one of the Coachella Valley's fastest-growing fields — according to CVEP's 2014 economic report, it added 4,888 jobs between 2000 and 2013. In addition to highly educated doctors and nurses, this sector includes lab technicians and billing specialists, jobs that may not require bachelor's degrees.

Also growing is the retail industry, which swelled by 7,513 jobs between 2000 and 2013; hotels and amusement, which added 3,184 workers; education, which added 2,300; and engineering and management, which increased by 826.

On average, local healthcare jobs paid $57,844, according to CVEP's report. Education paid $44,528 on average; engineering, $48,030. In contrast, average tourism workers earned just $30,499, and retail employees collected $25,709.

Across Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the unemployment rate was 7.3 percent in January, slightly higher than California's 6.9 percent.

Manufacturing, agriculture and construction all lost workers between 2000 and 2013. Construction shrunk by 40 percent, from more than 11,000 workers to just 6,700. Agriculture lost nearly 1,000 workers, and manufacturing, 600, according to CVEP's report.