In repeated surveys, today’s generation of students claim that they value the college experience, the opportunity to learn and the social interaction — but they also regard their college years as an investment. The Value of College report, conducted last year by MONEY and Barnes & Noble College, revealed that 90 percent of students considered the role of “preparing for a fulfilling career” as a valuable benefit of a college education. That gap between high expectations and the hard reality of a student unprepared for the world of work has spurred the development of both institutional programs and public policies to increase college readiness and create a more highly skilled and qualified competitive workforce.
LINKING CAMPUS TO CAREER
Faced with a growing skills gap, employers are partnering with community colleges to provide students with the education needed to succeed in today’s work force and the specific hands-on skills to land a job. A closer partnership between students and potential employers is happening at Onondaga Community College, where local business leaders are no strangers to the campus. “It’s an opportunity for them to have conversations about the kinds of skills and qualifications they’re looking for, and the chance for our students to start the networking process,” says Jess Abbott, who manages the college’s bookstore.
Part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, Onondaga, located in Syracuse, N.Y., was a recipient of the Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant in 2015, and it’s been put to good use through a variety of programs that helps train students for future careers, among them is the With Love restaurant. “It’s a teaching restaurant for every student who attends an OTC food service program here, and it gives those students real-life, hands-on experience,” Abbott explains.
Operated in partnership with the Syracuse Center of Excellence and the CenterState CEO organization, With Love is also an entrepreneur incubator, where would-be restauranteurs can learn about owning and running a food service business. It’s through forward thinking programs like these that the college is creating direct links between the campus and the world of work. “I think the perception of a community college used to be only as a feeder to a four-year program,” Abbott points out, “but, particularly in this economy, we’re seeing that’s just not always the case. Students are looking for a job at the end of their time here.”
If there’s a new urgency about the way this generation views career preparation, the need for guidance and counseling has only increased with it. Amanda Konopa, Manager at Genesee Community College Bookstore, has certainly noticed that change in the student booksellers at her store. “Our students are very focused, here,” she says, “and although they might not know exactly where they’re going, they’re really trying to find out what the next steps are.”
Also part of the SUNY system, Genesee Community College (GCC) serves four different counties within the State of New York, with six extension sites and a robust online learning program. Partnering with Western New York High Schools, the college has developed Accelerated College Enrollment (ACE) Programs to provide college courses to secondary students during the school day. These programs provide an opportunity for students to enroll in college level courses and earn college credits from Genesee Community College while still in high school. The college also offers The Best Center, a technologically advanced skills screening facility. “It’s very community facing,” explains Konopa, “and those who might not even be enrolled can take various training programs such as CPR, computer skills, Red Cross training and Drivers Ed classes,” she adds.
At Onondaga, the campus also continues to seek out connections to the local community. “Because of our location, with many hospitals and medical centers in the area, the school is doing a great job looking at those industries in the community and, taking and adapting the kinds of programs that can result in employable skills,” Abbott says, citing additional non-credit workforce related programs directly linked to local hiring industries. “You can take a course such as Machine Operator 1, and be trained in that field, finishing with a 100-hour internship,” she says, “and that could result in a median annual wage of around $36,000 — a livable salary here.”
NEW SKILLS FOR A DIFFERENT WORKFORCE
At Onondaga, the function of career fairs has evolved and been redesigned into Opportunity Experiences events, providing a new generation of students with the tools and skills development before they even decide on a particular career track. “Many of our students believe they’re capable of building their own businesses,” Abbott says, “Schools have been focused on more traditional work experience, yet many of the industries we’re familiar with are changing — and we need to change with them. Schools are now understanding that they need to expand opportunities for students and change to meet those needs. Partnering with local industries will provide businesses with skilled workers and our students with good paying jobs.”