Retooling American Workers

Not all students at Rock Valley Community College in Rockford, Ill., will be studying Poli-Sci and Biology 101 this fall. Roughly 13% of the student body will be boning up on such topics as "Teaming for Success" and "Reliability Engineering" at the behest of their employers. In recent years, some 100 local companies from giants Sundstrand and Ingersoll Milling to tiny Production Line have sent their workers back to school.

Put aside stereotypes of two-year community colleges as dumping grounds for underachievers. The schools aren't abandoning their mission of helping kids get into four-year schools and offering vocational training. But more and more, they're seeking to fill a critical void: upgrading workers' skills so U.S. companies can stay globally competitive. "There's no higher priority for New Jersey's community colleges than economic development," says Lawrence Nespoli, executive director of the state's Council of County Colleges. "Yes, it's important for people to study Aristotle and Shakespeare. But it's also important for them to be gainfully employed."

That's a tall order. A new study of literacy in the U.S. released on Sept. 8 concluded that more than 20%--some 42 million adults--have skills so limited that they're ill-equipped for job advancement or managing their personal affairs. About 40 million to 44 million people couldn't even consistently read a map or fill out a simple form. "Inadequate skills are a severe limit on the potential of the work force," says Gregory Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., which conducted the study. "It could suggest that we're in danger of losing jobs because literacy levels in the U.S. are below those of other countries."

Community colleges alone, of course, can't begin to redress such problems. But they're increasingly stepping into the breach. In fact, the nation's 1,158 community colleges have emerged as the largest provider of work-force retraining, aside from employers themselves. A 1992 poll of 608 community colleges by the D. C.-based Southport Institute for Policy Analysis found that 69% of those surveyed offer workplace retraining. More than half the schools started programs in the five years from 1987 to 1991.

CROWDED FIELD. Until recently, such efforts have been largely ad hoc. But that's changing as the colleges pick up momentum and corporate backing. In June, the newly formed "Consortium for Supplier Training," which includes Motorola, Xerox, Kodak, and Digital Equipment, began turning over its in-house courses on benchmarking and other proven quality methods to select community colleges nationwide. The schools will teach the courses to the suppliers of consortium members--and anyone else who wants to take them. A handful of schools participate now, but "our vision is to have hundreds around the country involved," says James R. Parker, manager of supplier quality at Xerox Corp.

For some companies, the training is paying off. Rockford Process Control Inc., a custom metal-assemblies maker, started sending its 60 employees to Rock Valley in the late 1980s. They studied just-in-time production, problem-solving, and other techniques that helped Rockford cut defects, speed production--and land Honda as a major client, says founder Paul Colloton. By yearend, Rockford's revenues will have doubled since 1990, to $12.5 million. The work force has surged to 125.

Many schools, facing shrinking state funds for higher education, see corporate-sponsored training programs generating much-needed cash. They have plenty of competition: The field is bursting with professional trainers, trade associations, labor unions, and others, all clamoring for scarce training dollars. But companies often find that community colleges are the best value for the money. "This is college-level quality," says Teresa A. Dial, executive vice-president for business banking at Wells Fargo Bank, which is using the colleges for training. "It's also cost-effective." Dial says community colleges are 10% to 20% cheaper than professional trainers.

The schools are marketing themselves by tailoring their programs to the needs of local employers (table, page 76). The College of San Mateo in California and Hewlett-Packard Co. recently developed computer-based, interactive training in electronics for Hewlett-Packard technicians and production workers. In addition to class instruction, the school has set up 24-hour-a-day computer centers at several HP plants to accommodate the plants' three shifts.

MONEY DRAG. Some colleges are even "guaranteeing" graduates of their technical programs to address growing concerns among employers and others over the lack of accountability in higher education. Under such a guarantee, if a company is unhappy with a graduate's skills, the employee can take refresher courses gratis until the employer is satisfied. So far, all Illinois colleges, plus most schools in New Jersey and Texas, offer the guarantees.

Eyeing employers with multiple offices, New Jersey and others are forming community college networks, with a coordinator to link programs. Wells Fargo Bank is using such a system in California to teach in-depth financial analysis and accounting to some 300 banking officers at about a dozen campuses. "The great thing is you have access to 100 potential locations, but you don't have to deal with them individually," says Dial.

Business isn't always satisfied with the colleges. A big worry is consistency. "We've seen an unevenness in terms of quality" at Illinois schools, says Mark S. Killion, a consultant to the Illinois Manufacturers Assn., which is pairing schools with interested companies.

Colleges, on the other hand, claim that businesses can make unreasonable demands. Xerox and Eastman Kodak Co., for example, wanted full-time faculty, rather than adjunct professors, to teach their supplier courses at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y. President Peter A. Spina agreed, but he hesitated at first: Twelve years earlier, the school, at Kodak's request, hired two tenured professors to teach Kodak employees about a new processing method. The process has long since become obsolete and the classes ended, but both professors are still on Monroe's faculty.

As more companies and schools collaborate, such problems will eventually work themselves out. A far bigger obstacle is money. Employer spending on training is stuck at about $30 billion a year, or about 1% of payroll, estimates Anthony Carnevale, chief economist for the American Society for Training & Development. That's less than half the per capita spending in Germany.

While President Bill Clinton supports increased training funds, the U.S. isn't likely to ante up much financial help soon. But states are stepping in. California and Illinois have set up matching grants to retrain workers, while New Jersey and Texas are dipping into overfunded unemployment insurance funds to shell out about $50 million annually for training. If more states follow--and if the colleges live up to their aims of making workers more competitive--their role will continue to expand.

             HEADING OFF TO 
                 (COMMUNITY) COLLEGE
      HEWLETT-PACKARD  The College of San Mateo is
      sending professors to a Boise (Idaho) plant to teach
      production workers about basic electronics
      F. SCHUMACHER  Community colleges are training
      managers of the New York-based fabric supplier in
      problem-solving and conflict resolution
      MOTOROLA  As part of a consortium of seven com-
      panies and Sematech, the technology giant is turing to a
      network of select community colleges to train suppliers
      JOHNSON & JOHNSON  Grayson Community
      College in Sherman, Tex., is teaching leadership skills to
      first-line supervisors at a local J&L gauze plant
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