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Getting to Work: Community and Vocational Colleges Explore New Paradigms for Workforce Development

September 2010

Moderator: Welcome to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Economic Development podcast series. I'm Todd Greene with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Today we're talking with Dr. Rolando Montoya, provost for Miami Dade College, the largest nonprofit institution of higher learning in the United States, with over 161,000 students.

The country is experiencing stubbornly high levels of unemployment, with many job sectors unlikely to rebound to their former levels soon, if at all. Yet other industries, many of which require some level of specialized training, are experiencing worker shortages. Community and technical colleges play a vital role in quickly training workers to fill job demand within their territories, and often work in partnership with local employers to address employee skill mismatches. Current economic conditions have challenged traditional community college educational models, as the needs of employers and students alike have significantly changed. Miami Dade College represents one example of how a community college, working with local employers and economic developers, has adapted to today's difficult employment environment.

Dr. Montoya began his career at Miami Dade College in 1987 and, before becoming provost, served in the positions of professor, department chairperson, dean of academic affairs, and as a campus president. Dr. Montoya also serves on the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Labor, Education, and Health Advisory Council.

Dr. Montoya, thank you for joining me today.

Dr. Rolando Montoya: Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Moderator: Miami Dade College, like most institutions of higher education, has witnessed a dramatic change in its student population, especially over the last couple of years. Please tell me a little about how your student population has changed and to what do you attribute these changes?

Montoya: The first thing is that the total student population is growing very fast. There is an inverse correlation between enrollment and economic activity. During recessions, enrollment grows. It is very difficult for young high school graduates to find jobs, and then they opt to come to higher education. And those who are already enrolled find it harder to get part-time jobs, and then they decide to take additional courses. In addition, many displaced workers who have been suffering because of this high unemployment rate that we have right now have taken advantage of federal financial aid, and they come to college to upgrade their skills to see if they can find some jobs in the areas in which we still have some openings.

Now, another change that we are observing is that, even though women still constitute the majority of the student body, we are observing an increase in the number of males who are enrolling here at the college. I think that this is also related to the economic conditions. As these men find it difficult to find jobs, they opt to upgrade their education. Also, the very young ones, the ones who just finished high school—recent high school graduates—are also coming to college in greater percentages than before. Probably they realize that the job market is not absorbing them, then they also opt to continue their education.

And, another important statistical trend that we are observing is that although enrollment is growing overall, we are noticing greater growth in occupational programs—career and technical programs—than in general education and liberal arts.

Moderator: How is this different from other recessions?

Montoya: I would say that this recession—at least, it's perceived by all of us as being longer and deeper, with very high unemployment. Therefore, I would say that the numbers, in terms of enrollment increase, have been larger than what we observed in the past. And, also, I would say that the specific types of populations that are more affected by the recession are more clearly represented among the students who have been recently coming to the college.

Moderator: You've indicated the economic recession has impacted some industries more than others. Which job sectors are experiencing the highest placement rates for your graduates, and which are seeing significant decreases? And, do you see these changes as cyclical or more structural?

Montoya: Anything that has to do with healthcare, such as nursing, physician assistant, pharmacy, technology, and related fields, are doing very, very well—more than a 90 percent rate of placement among the graduates. Also, the area of criminal justice—public safety—is doing pretty well. We are graduating police officers, and they find jobs—correctional officers, firefighters, paramedics. And the computer science fields, people in computer networking, computer programming, computer applications are doing pretty well, too.

On the other hand, there are some areas that are showing a lot lower placement than before. Good examples are architecture, interior design, construction management, real estate and mortgage brokerage, and banking. Also, education—K to 12 teaching—has also suffered a lot in terms of placement rates because the public school system, due to budgetary constraints, has an employment freeze. Therefore, what they have been doing is reducing the number of administrators, and then they place the administrators in teaching assignments, which has produced a tremendous reduction in the number of recent graduates in education who can find jobs.

I would say that most of the changes, in my opinion, are cyclical, because when you see that our own current students are having difficulty to get part-time jobs, or to be able to do overtime at their jobs, etc., that's clear evidence that, basically, it's due to the current economic situation. Also, when you analyze the majors that are having more difficulty in terms of placement, they are tremendously related to the areas associated to the current recession—anything that has to do with construction, anything that has to do with financial services.

Now, not everything is cyclical. I would say that we can see some structural cases here because there are vacancies in healthcare fields that have not been filled simply because among the unemployed that we have right now, they don't have credentials in that very specialized type of profession. And, unfortunately, colleges, including ours, are lacking capacity to be able to increase enrollment in those very specialized healthcare-related professions.

Moderator: We know many unemployed individuals have sought to leverage their skills and experience by opening their own businesses. Have you witnessed this trend at Miami Dade College, and how has the college adjusted its curriculum?

Montoya: Yes, I think that we have observed that trend. We have created a college credit certificate in entrepreneurship that has become very popular. We also have gotten several grants from Citi Foundation—the charitable branch of Citigroup—and the grants work to support the training, the guidance, the preparation of small business owners, mostly in the poor neighborhoods of Miami or people from ethnic minorities. And this has been a very successful program, and we have helped lots of people to be able to organize their businesses and make them more efficient, more viable.

And then, finally, our School of Continuing Education, noticing that there was this need to prepare people to be on their own, developed a variety of noncredit courses in entrepreneurship, small business management, consulting services, etc., that have resulted very popular during the last couple of years.

Moderator: We typically think of community colleges as offering two-year associate degrees, but Miami Dade College now offers bachelor-level degrees in some fields. You've also increased the number of certificate programs. What is driving this diversification?

Montoya: I would say that the diversification is driven, number one, by student demand, and also it is due to the needs of business and industry with whom we maintain a very strong partnership. Florida legislature only approves baccalaureate degrees at community colleges in professional areas of very high demand that have not been satisfied by public or private universities. Therefore, it's not that tomorrow we can just offer a baccalaureate in whatever field we want. There is a very rigorous process to get it approved, and we need to demonstrate that there is a need on the part of the private sector and also that there is a demand on the part of the students. And also, that no university in the region has the capacity to satisfy that demand.

Now, the certificate programs are basically short term—they have a length of one year or less—and are prepared to develop the workforce and allow our population to take advantage of the job opportunities that are available.

Moderator: There has been a focus in economic development and employment literature around skill mismatches within local labor markets. And a mismatch occurs when an employee's skill set doesn't meet the needs of employers who are hiring. How have you changed the way you assess the workforce needs of your local industry?

Montoya: Well, in order to avoid this type of mismatch, we are utilizing a variety of strategies. Probably the most important one is the creation of advisory committees for each one of our workforce programs. These committees are formed by representatives of the employers, or by representatives of the different professions, or professional organizations, in the different fields or specialties. And the committees meet at least twice a year to provide information to our faculty and administration about what are the trends in the industry, what are the newest skills that are needed, what are the new machines and equipment that are being used by the private sector, what are some of the innovations and changes that are being observed. And then with this information the faculty is frequently adjusting or enhancing the curriculum.

Another important strategy to avoid the mismatch has been the creation of bilateral partnerships with large employers for the development of specific workforce programs that will help them fill vacancies in certain areas. For example, the college developed a very successful program in partnership with Florida Power and Light—the electric company here in South Florida—to graduate technicians that will be working at their nuclear plants here in South Florida. We have also developed these types of partnerships with biopharmaceutical companies, we have done it with television production companies, we have done it with banks and other financial institutions, and with hotels here in the area. This is a great example of how to reduce structural unemployment.

Moderator: Economic development professionals, who are charged with increasing employment and investment within their community, have long worked closely with community and technical colleges. Under current economic conditions, how do you see this changing, and what do you predict successful partnerships with economic development organizations will look like in the future?

Montoya: Well, although we always had these types of partnerships with economic development bodies—and I think that most of the colleges and universities do—I see a tremendous intensification in the number and depths of these types of partnerships. In the case of Miami Dade College, for example, we have a very close relationship with the South Florida Workforce Investment Board. South Florida Workforce and Miami Dade College get together to plan strategically about what are the areas of potential growth in our economy, and for what areas we need to establish training, educational programs to prepare people for those changes.

They also help students by funding their education here at the college. Sometimes they do it individually, case by case. In many other instances they fund cohorts, and they buy from the college the complete offering of a program. For example, right now they have a cohort of forty nursing students that they are completely sponsoring. It's a very nice program in which South Florida Workforce covers the costs, Miami Dade College teaches the courses, and the University of Miami hospital has guaranteed employment to the forty nurses that are going to graduate from the program Right now, we are negotiating the funding of another cohort in biotechnology. Another area of collaboration with them is that we apply together for federal grants to develop the labor force. And, in terms of the future, I can only expect additional and stronger relationships. This is a very, very good symbiotic relationship between both organizations.

Moderator: Dr. Montoya, thank you for joining us today.

Montoya: Thank you very much.

Moderator: This concludes our podcast. We've been speaking with Dr. Rolando Montoya, provost for Miami Dade College. For more podcasts on this topic and others, visit the Atlanta Fed's Web site at www.frbatlanta.org. If you have comments or questions, please email podcast@frbatlanta.org.

Thanks for listening.