State expanding school-to-work programs

Massachusetts officials have been working with the state’s 15 community colleges, industry leaders, career centers, and local workforce investment boards to help students find jobs

As a student at UMass Amherst, Darlene Arcese changed her major three times before realizing the traditional college experience wasn’t for her. So Arcese went off the beaten education path and enrolled in the Power Utility Technology Program at Bunker Hill Community College, where she received the hands-on training she needed to start a career with NStar Electric, a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities.

For Arcese, the nine-year-old program was a perfect fit. She landed a good-paying job doing utility work in the field. “I love my job,” Arcese says. “I never really wanted to work in a real officey-type job.”

Arcese is one of nearly 100 students who have completed the program, the crown jewel of the community college’s workforce development programs and something of a model for the state Department of Higher Education as it pushes public colleges and universities across Massachusetts to develop programs that will train students for work in the four growth industries of health care, information technology, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing.

With the help of a $20 million grant from the US Department of Labor, Massachusetts officials have been working for the last two years with the state’s 15 community colleges, industry leaders, career centers, and local workforce investment boards to develop initiatives to help unemployed or underemployed students find jobs in expanding industries that need new workers. As with the NStar program, the goal is to match students with jobs, but the new effort is much broader in focus and is far more complicated because it involves multiple educational institutions and entire industries.

“Our goal is really to think strategically systemwide,” says Christine Williams, associate director of workforce training for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Edu – cation. “We have 15 community colleges, nine state universities, and five UMass campuses. So across that entire system, where are the different areas that people are entering and exiting through that system and how do we make sure that they have both education and the training that they need that mirrors where their career is going to go?”

Dale Allen, vice president for community engagement at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, says there are multiple pathways to jobs in the four targeted industries that may involve different types of degrees. “Workforce development isn’t about a certificate, an associate’s degree, and a bachelor’s degree in isolation. It’s about all of it,” Allen says.

State officials have developed programs that help students find the jobs that are likely to be available to them and find out what they need to do academically to land them. In order to ensure Massachusetts’s community college’s achieve their goals, community college presidents, the commissioner of higher education, and the Depart – ment of Higher Education adopted a new funding formula driven predominantly by how the schools perform in steering students into the four targeted areas.

“It holds them accountable in a way that has never been practiced in higher education in Massachusetts,” says Allen.

Some schools are already making progress. At Quin – sigamond, Allen says, all of the school’s biotech students do their capstone projects at Abbot Laboratories, and many of them are hired by large firms immediately after graduation.

“You will find that example at every community college, and every four-year institution,” says Allen.

That type of approach has worked with the Bunker Hill utility program, which was founded in 2004 after NSTAR and the local utility union approached the community college for help replacing the company’s aging workforce (“College try”, CW, Spring 2007).

As part of the program, NStar guarantees every student a job interview upon completion of the program. More than 92 percent of graduates have been hired by NStar.

“We have pretty much hired everybody who has indicated an interest, or expressed an interest, in being employed with NSTAR,” says Christine Carmody, senior vice president of human resources for Northeast Utilities. “But there have been a couple of people who have moved on to other parts of the country or roles within the utility industry with other companies.”

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The two-year program requires students to enroll in traditional college-level classes as well as fulfill paid internship requirements with NSTAR during vacations and holidays. The income generated through the internships is enough to cover the student’s enrollment costs.

“I like to call it the super apprenticeship program,” says Les Warren, executive director of Bunker Hill’s Workforce Development Center.