In response to employers’ calls for action, colleges and universities throughout the state are making a major shift in their workforce training programs.
Michigan State University and Western Michigan University, two of the state’s largest public universities, are responding to demands from business and industry leaders by collaborating with community colleges to add more accessible, job-focused credentialing programs to their curriculums.
The Institute of Agricultural Technology at MSU will offer a new certificate program in “Food Processing, Technology and Safety” in partnership with three community colleges starting in fall 2019.
The new program will prepare graduates to safely operate and maintain equipment processing systems to meet sustained industry needs for a trained and skilled workforce, according to Kelly Millenbah, senior associate dean for the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“We knew that there are obvious challenges recruiting young people into the workforce and one of the key areas that kept coming back up was around fruits and vegetable processing or food processing in general,” Millenbah told MiBiz. “We were hearing from a lot and different places that there wasn’t the volume of individuals coming into that space.”
In partnership with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the university secured funding for both on-campus lab renovations and the building of at least one mobile unit for hands-on training.
“Think of the mobile unit as a semi-trailer that essentially has a miniaturized version of a large-scale lab,” she said.
Students can participate in the new food processing program at MSU in East Lansing, as well as at partner locations Muskegon Community College in Muskegon and Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.
FOCUS: EDUCATION & TALENT DEVELOPMENT
Graduates of the program will earn both a certificate from MSU and an associate degree from the participating community college partners. The on-campus program partners with Lansing Community College to offer an associate degree.
“We believe it’s important that we go to where the students are and deliver the programs exactly where the students are living and working,” Millenbah said. “Hopefully, it will also keep them in those same places to continue their own professional growth and development while staying within their home communities.”
MSU purposefully choose to start the program with community colleges in regions where food processing jobs already exist, she said. Millenbah expects the program to grow beyond those partnerships in the future to include more schools throughout the state.
“We don’t deliver every certificate at every community college,” she said. “We deliver the certificates that are the most meaningful based on where that community college is located and what industry might be driving particular areas of this state.”
Time to collaborate
Food processors are recognizing the value of creating better pipelines to employment by using higher education institutions, said Matt Breslin, executive director of the Michigan Food Processors Association, a Lansing-based trade group.
“Universities are looking to businesses and asking what they need,” Breslin told MiBiz. “Anytime you can create a program that encourages more students to go into an industry, you are going to see more people coming out and being interested in it.”
The food processing industry is also part of a larger group of employers that is outspoken about the need to collaborate to increase the number of skilled workers in the state, according to Edwin Martini, associate dean of extended university programs at WMU.
“What we were hearing from our partners in the industry is that every year, hundreds if not thousands of really great skilled trade and engineering-related jobs were going unfilled,” Martini told MiBiz. “We tried coming up with different opportunities, different options, brainstorming what some models could look like.”
Work and study
One of the results at WMU is the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Laboratory (AMP Lab) at the university’s campus in downtown Grand Rapids. WMU operates the AMP Lab in partnership with Grand Rapids Community College and local industry. Students who are interested in going into industrial engineering and advanced manufacturing jobs can earn accreditation at GRCC and WMU while working at a partnering employer. These employers have committed to helping pay for their employees’ tuition.
“It’s really a solid partnership between industry and multiple educational institutions to try to meet the workforce and economic development needs of Grand Rapids and West Michigan,” Martini said. “We’re definitely making a bigger push to try to meet those engineering needs for the city, the county and the region, but this is really the first program of this kind of unique nature where we’ve got employers paying the way for students.”
This new model of education is a movement that Martini hopes will meet the needs of the workforce and a diverse range of learners in the future.
“AMP Lab gives (students) a really solid career path but also the employers themselves have some skin in the game and are saying if we want this highly trained manufacturing workforce, we’re going to have to pay for the cost of those classes and that education as well,” he said. “(Students) can continue to work and make progress on their degree while they maintain a solid high-paying job and then the employer is getting what they need, which is a highly trained and skilled workforce.”
However, this type of programming is still in a development phase and its long-term success depends on student buy-in and interest.
“It’s still going to rely on student demand,” Martini said. “It requires good conversations and good listening on all sides between employers, between multiple different partners, and higher education, and ultimately students and families as well. They’re still the ones that we’ve got to convince that these are good programs and that these are good jobs.”
The shift from higher education’s focus on traditional academic programs and research to workforce training is fitting for modern students, according to Martini, particularly as student debt rates rise to record levels.
More than 44 million borrowers now collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. alone, according to data from the Federal Reserve.
“When the cost of education has gone up so much, people are openly questioning the value of the degree,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to promise them some return on investment.”