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Helping Workers in Cities Make Transitions

October 7, 2016 7 minute Read by William McKenzie
The Bush Institute talks with Benjamin Rand, associate vice chancellor of the Tarrant County College District, about how workers and cities can make transitions.

How can workers acquire the skills to make transitions, perhaps several of them, during their careers? And how can they and the communities in which they live repurpose themselves if the global economy leaves them behind? 

Increasingly, community colleges are a key part of the answer. They assist new workers, transitioning workers, and communities seeking a new direction.

Benjamin Rand, associate vice chancellor of the Tarrant County College District, explains in this interview with Bush Institute editorial director William McKenzie how community colleges, including his own in Fort Worth, help workers and cities make transitions. Rand, a member of the Bush Institute’s North American Working Group,  believes they best help by knowing a region’s needs.

How do community colleges prepare more graduates so they can benefit from an economy that often knows no boundaries?

The great thing about community colleges is we’re nimble and deeply entwined within the needs and direction of a region. 

In our case, we focus on the many multinational companies and distribution chains within our own region.  It’s our obligation and mission to find out what the community needs. We then determine which industry clusters we’re going to focus on. The clusters allow us to offer a range of courses in those fields. That way, we can prepare the workforce.

The great thing about community colleges is we’re nimble and deeply entwined within the needs and direction of a region. 

What skills do you see most in demand in North Texas? Are they centered on health care? Robotics? Coding? Something else?

All of the above, but health care really stands out. Health care and related medical fields are offering the highest level of occupational growth combined with sustainable wages. We’re very adamant in looking for training in those fields. For example, we have an increase in demand for a nursing program, so we admit new classes three times a year. 

We also have a Nursing Fast Track program for veterans. We’re creating a pathway for medics and others in the military with medical skills so they can their training can count in a registered nurse program. They can become a registered nurse in one year, as opposed to two.

What skills do community colleges around the nation see most in demand? 

Health care services definitely are most in demand. I do see a lot of need for coding programmers. We’re implementing a coding camp here.

How do community colleges equip students coming out of high school with a set of base skills that can carry them over to their next career? 

There are many ways community colleges engage with high school students and school districts. In our case, we have an early college high school on every one of our campuses. We partner closely with school districts so students can graduate high school with an associate’s degree before they even leave high school.

Of course, some students need to work now, so we offer certificate programs. A student can get a certificate in a technical program or professional development. They learn skill sets, such as learning how to be a welder. They can get a skill and a job with that skill very quickly. 

We’re talking here about high school, but how do community colleges, including Tarrant County College, help people who need to make pivots in the middle of their careers?

Students who are making a career transition have access to career coaches. We will do a personal gap analysis for them, where we find out their skills and where they would like to go. We will help identify a career pathway, which allows students to see where they are starting and how they can get to where they eventually want to end up. 

This approach helps them understand the requirements to be successful in a course. Instead of taking anything they like, we encourage students to use the pathway model. If you are interested in this career path, these are the courses you have to take and this is how you can progress.

What about cities that need to make a pivot? Pittsburgh has lost its steel industry but is transitioning to become a health and technology center. How do community colleges help communities make that kind of move? 

Economic development agencies partnering with educational institutions can help attract other industries. And community colleges can help supply a qualified work force. They can partner with the industry and provide training for their workforce.

We also can work with the creativity that already resides in a town. What if you had been a plumber for 20 years and needed just some extra training on the latest equipment? You could get that through a community college. A plumber can sit down with an educator and say, this is what I want to do. Together, they can take the next step. 

Public-private partnerships are another way for a city to make a transition. Corporations coming in to a community look not just for tax incentives but for a retraining of workers. If you can partner with a college with its resources and equipment, you might not have to reinvent the wheel all the time.

So, if a Pittsburgh wanted to turn itself around, the city could look to its higher education institutions to see if they can train the workforce and support local entrepreneurs. 


William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he co-teaches an education policy class at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He also participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News and The Weekly Standard.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

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