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Employer Partnerships Drive Sevenfold Increase in Short-Term Training Programs at the Maine Community College System

Urgent employer staffing needs and the individual quest to obtain the skills needed to advance in viable career paths are prompting greater collaboration among the Maine community colleges and employers, according to officials who appeared on a webinar hosted by the Portland Press Herald. Over the past three years, short-term training programs have surged 600% at the Maine Community College System. MCCS comprises seven community colleges, an enrollment of more than 15,000, and numerous CAEL members.

"There are almost twice as many job vacancies right now as there are unemployed people," said David Daigler, president of MCCS. Meanwhile, among those seeking a job, about a quarter find that they lack the skills necessary for the role. These factors are driving double-edged demand for training that can quickly fill skills gaps and open positions.

"Every single industry is struggling to fill positions," said Dan Belyea, chief workforce development officer at MCCS. "We're able to take these sets of skills, work with employers, and bring them into real-time training that not only meets the business needs but also meets the learner needs."

The demand for precisely targeted, work-relevant training isn't limited to prospective employees. In fact, a centerpiece of MCCS' short-term training portfolio focuses on incumbent workers. In January, MCCS launched the grant-funded Maine Workforce Development Compact. The compact makes collaboration among Maine's community colleges, businesses, and other organizations more seamless.

Compact partners can receive up to $1,200 per employee to cover professional development. "What's really interesting about this project is only 19% of professional development training is going to frontline workers," said Belyea. "Most of the professional development training across the country goes to mid-management and senior leaders. And so we saw this as a way to help upskill those frontline workers to get additional credentials, so that they have the ability to move up in positions within companies."

Businesses can join the compact "instantly" via an online form. Once they do, a MCCS staff member contacts them to determine their specific needs. The site also engages individual learners, who can use it to browse upskilling opportunities. 

To date, around 290 partners have signed on. The compact has distributed nearly $1.5 million in training funds. MCCS aims to train more than 13,000 incumbent workers and provide up to 5,000 free community college courses. 

All told, MCCS has more than $60 million in funding that it is pooling through the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine's Workforce. In addition to short-term training, it fosters credential and degree completion, targeting prospective employees, incumbent workers, and students. 

Christine Kendall, president and owner of H.E. Callahan Construction and an executive board member of the Association of General Contractors, has seen first-hand the benefits of industry coordination with MCCS. Kendall has been involved with the building construction program at Central Maine Community College for several years, and described the development of a fast-track program for construction workers as the "direct result of the feedback they had received from the partnering organizations on what the industry really needed."

"When we talk about workforce development, we're talking about a group of people that are coming into, who are interested, in the construction industry and have no experience -- not little experience but no experience," she said. "Every day, I go to work and we talk about labor needs, and where are we going to find people to do the work that we need." With small businesses struggling to conduct on-the-job training, "it's necessary for us to have a form of bootcamp that coincides with them working with an employer and getting an education." 

Kendall described education-employer partnerships as a "win-win for everybody," noting that employers can focus on their operation, employees have a pathway to good wages and benefits, and community colleges are entrusted with what they do best. "They are the right group to train people," she said. "They're educators, that's what they do, and my personal opinion is to leave the training to the experts."

Mirroring the Central Maine Community College Program is the construction institute at Southern Maine Community College. It offers short-term training that develops competencies in OSHA requirements, general safety and health, fire protection, and other basics needed to access entry-level roles.

Belyea points to the collaborative nature of such programs as the key differentiator from traditional academic programs. "The building of a relationship between the college and the business connects the college to that business. That means that it connects to the job vacancies that currently exist, it connects it to the skills that are needed to fill those vacancies."

"We're making sure that we're teaching the student the skills they need for the job at hand," said Daigler. For example, rather than a blanket algebraic requirement, a program might prioritize the math that is required for success in the role. 

As a result, the transformation of classroom knowledge to workforce know-how is more seamless and rapid. Amid profound skills gaps, Daigler said, students "get those skills, and then they have actual jobs" rather than the traditional model in which they shop their college qualifications in the hope they match a job. "Oftentimes, they've actually got the job before they complete the training program."

Achieving such an optimal and immediate alignment between learning and work takes continual and close coordination with employers. "We can't cook something up in the dark," said Belyea. "We've got the specialists who can package it and make it work and provide the instruction, but we really have to have that feedback." 

MCCS' effort around short-term training appears to be poised to deliver long-term impact. MCCS plans to provide short-term training to 24,000 Mainers over the next four years. And it is working closely with Maine's Department of Economic and Community Development to target emerging industry workforce needs, such as aquaculture and agritech.

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