By Jeremy Catoe
When the 2007 recession was starting, I was celebrating my first year as an employee of the Local Workforce Development Board here in the Midlands. I was tasked with helping people improve their positions in the workforce. Overnight, a normally quiet lobby turned into a standing-room-only situation.
The recession changed the lives of millions of people all over the globe. It certainly changed the focus of companies, as well as continuing education programs, across the country. Thousands of industries had to find ways to do more with less, and that meant layoffs in many cases. Workers were faced with the stark reality that, for a lot of them, their skill sets no longer matched what the market demanded. You started hearing a lot more talk about the "skills gap," meaning most job seekers did not have the right skills to do most of the open jobs.
Many of those frustrated job seekers recognized that the same thing they had always done was no longer an option, and they stepped into the void as a "career changer.” Assembly line employees became entry-level IT professionals. Administrative assistants became patient care technicians. Customer service representatives became pipe welders. The doors of the local technical colleges were now just as busy as those at the workforce center.
This strategy worked really well for “career changers,” and to a degree, it's still happening. But now, as someone whose role is to assist local employers identify the best training solutions for their existing workforce, I am seeing the next hill on the roller coaster. The “career changers” are maturing out of their entry-level positions. They are growing in their new industries, and they need to be trained for that too.
It's a timely shift for training providers as well. Here at Midlands Technical College, we are still seeing “career changers,” but they are no longer arriving in the same great numbers. As the number of those students decreases, we are seeing an even greater increase in demand for the next level of training needed to grow “career builders.” However, builders don't train the same way changers do. That means we need to change how we deliver our services. As a result, MTC has become nimble in the way we offer training. Here are some of the tenets we’re following to stay ahead of the curve:
Training has to be flexible. It's easy to schedule classes for students who are either unemployed or employed in part-time positions. But as the economy continues to improve, we need to be ready to assist customers who are looking to grow their skills while juggling a busy work schedule. Sometimes, this means offering courses that meet in the evening or even on the weekend. Sometimes, it means finding ways to offer more courses online. The key is that you have to meet your students where they are.
Training courses don't all need to be three days long, or two days long, or all day, or even three hours. We are hearing more and more requests for short-term seminars or "Lunch and Learns." Employers are looking for ways to hit individual learning objectives in small windows of scheduled opportunity. We have to be more creative in developing training materials to fit this need.
Stop thinking that all training must focus on "how to do item x." Start training on "how to do item x better.” Continuing education for “career changers” was focused on teaching foundational skills. For example, we taught welders enough to find employment. Their new employer taught them the specialized skills they would need to complete their specific tasks. As their business demand increases, more of our corporate clients are coming to us wanting advanced training that they used to do in-house. Their workforces are growing, and many of them don’t have the time or the resources to do the in-house training they did five years ago.
Turn great "doers" into great leaders. As we already discussed, many of the “career changers” that came out of the recession are almost 10 years into their new careers. Many of them are now experienced and very skilled at the entry-level positions they landed in, and they are climbing within the organizations that hired them. But we all know that being a great worker doesn't necessarily translate into being a great leader. As the changers metamorphose into builders, we expect the demand for supervisory coaching and training courses to continue to grow.
Don't solve problems unless they actually exist. One thing the recession taught career changers is resources can turn scarce in the blink of an eye. As many of those folks become decision makers in their new workplace, they will remember that hard-taught lesson. They don't want to waste time or money on feel-good efforts. They want to focus on fixing problems that are costing the company time and money. Training efforts that cost more money and take more time than they will save won't be considered. As training solution providers, we need to be strategic when analyzing and investigating the difficulties our employer partners are facing to make sure that we have the right solutions available.
It's an interesting time in our economy. As a member of the Business Solutions team here at Midlands Technical College, I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to talk to so many different companies and organizations from so many different industries. I get to hear new insights every day from the folks who are making decisions that will impact not only their organizations but the entire region. It certainly feels like the momentum is building in a good direction, and we want to make sure that we do our part to make our little corner of the world competitive.
Jeremy Cato, business solutions director at Midlands Technical College, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.