Community colleges bridge the skills gap, training students for good-paying jobs

Jane Turner is among the students at area community colleges who are learning skills that are in high demand.
Jane Turner is among the students at area community colleges who are learning skills that are in high demand.

A month ago, 21 year-old Jane Turner worked at a snack bar in downtown Kansas City and had pretty much decided her aspirations to become an engineer and build airplanes was pie in the sky.

Now she spends six hours a day, five days a week, in classes and labs on the Metropolitan Community College-Business and Technology campus, learning to handle machine tools for milling.

Maneuvering settings on the nearly 1-ton Bridgeport M6 manual mill brings a smile to Turner’s face. “It feels good,” she says, knowing the skill could land her a job that down the road could pay her way through engineering school.

Turner is one of hundreds of students at area community colleges who are benefiting from a federally funded training program. The program succeeds in filling more than just the gap between dream and possibility in Turner’s life. It has poured workers into the skills gap for the last few years.

Although the grant supporting the program runs out for two area community colleges after this semester, instructors who’ve had success matching students with area companies that are eager to hire well-skilled workers say they won’t stop trying to meet the demand.

Students in the computer integrated machining and manufacturing program at the Metropolitan Community College Business and Technology campus are learning skills that lead directly to jobs. And one student dreams of some day building her own airpla

“Just because the grant runs out doesn’t mean we are going to close down. Definitely not,” said David Grady, who leads the federal grant-funded machining and manufacturing training program at MCC.

In 2012, the school received a $1.8 million share of $2 billion in government grant money that was set aside through the U.S. Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program. The goal was to give workers the skills, degrees and credentials needed for high-wage, high-skill employment while meeting the needs of employers for skilled workers.

The money has allowed the community college to partner with businesses and train unemployed or underemployed workers to fill vacancies in such areas as welding, robotics, industrial maintenance, computer-integrated machining and manufacturing and warehouse logistics.

Kansas City Kansas Community College got $3 million of the money in 2012 to operate a similar Training for Employment Program, which also ends this year.

The newest program is at Johnson County Community College, which was awarded nearly $2.5 million last year to enhance training for highly sought computer programmers, computer network specialists and health information service workers.

The three area community colleges already had small training programs on their campuses but didn’t have the industry connections to close the skills gap between workers and jobs.

Filling jobs

Researchers at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution wrote in a recent report that “the current gap between worker skills and industry needs has resulted in an estimated 2 million vacant manufacturing jobs in the U.S.” Filling these jobs, they said, “would require new mechanisms for training workers in advanced manufacturing technologies.”

That’s where community colleges come in.

Metropolitan Community College’s machining and manufacturing program “was developed out of a need to get people who didn’t have a job to work quickly,” Grady said. The program is divided so a student spends the first 10 weeks learning a skill and the last six in a paid internship.

It is a training-to-work idea that surfaced about the time the Labor Department grants were doled out. A 2012 report by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said that “while 72 percent of educational institutions believe recent graduates are ready for work, only 42 percent of employers agree.”

McKinsey suggested the solution was for job seekers and employers to work together — with employers helping to train the workers, then putting them to work.

By delivering training the way McKinsey suggests, the unemployed get the skills and land good-paying jobs, employers nab the right workers and the community college fulfills its mission, said Paul Hancock, an educator in the training program at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

“It’s a win-win-win situation, or I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it,” said Grady, who became an instructor after seeing that many of the employees hired by the North Kansas City company where he formerly worked lacked the skills to do the job.

Last month, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez visited the Metropolitan Community College campus to see the training firsthand.

To date,the college has paired with 45 area businesses. Kansas City Kansas Community College’s program, which can take from four days to two years to complete, and Johnson County’s, which can take up to two years, both work with long lists of business partners.

For now, Grady’s students have had their tuition paid with a portion of the federal grant dollars. That saved students about $1,100-1,200 this semester. When those dollars dry up, students will have to find the money elsewhere for the 16-week course.

Student tuition, coupled with financial assistance from such agencies as the Full Employment Council, which partnered with the school to help fill the skills gap in the area, is expected to keep the program going.

“It was always the goal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program to be sustainable after the grant ends,” said Shelley Temple-Kneuvean, the vice chancellor for administrative and financial services at Metropolitan Community College.

To date, 99 students have passed through the community college’s training program and completed paid internships at local companies. All but four were hired by the companies they interned with, Grady said.

Recruiting students

The opportunity for steady work and a decent wage was what Kyle Hanna, 29, from Holden, Mo., came looking for at Metropolitan Community College.

For 11 years and until this fall semester, “I was doing back-room inventory and making minimum wage,” Hanna said. “If I’d known about this program sooner, I would have been here sooner. I love it. I want to learn as much as possible. I want to make a better wage.”

And Hanna is shooting for an A in the class. Students with A averages are paid $13.50 an hour during their internships. Students with B averages get $13. Grady said he doesn’t send out C students. The goal is to have employers hire MCC-trained students.

Fike Corp., a Blue Springs company that makes safety devices for such things as fire suppression and explosion prevention, has hired six MCC students in the last two years.

Fike was among the first companies to partner with the college. When the consortium of companies first came together, “we talked about how we were struggling to find good qualified help,” said Darla McBee, Fike’s director of human resources.

McBee said Fike initially wasn’t convinced it could hire any of the interns, “but the very first person we hired out of the program set the bar pretty high,” McBee said.”We have hired one intern out of the program every semester since it started. We still have more openings than interns can fill.”

And Fike is not alone. Grady said companies frequently call him, looking to fill vacancies.

“I tell them I can’t help them,” Grady said. “As fast as we train them, someone hires them.”

Said Turner, the former snack-shop worker who dreams of building airplanes: “I was always terrified about going to school because of the cost, but with this program, I can see it all happening for me.”

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to