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Community colleges power transition to new economy jobs

Josh Labonte of Lorain County Community College. Photos | Bob Perkoski
Josh Labonte of Lorain County Community College. Photos | Bob Perkoski

Josh LaBonte can make a claim few graduating college students can these days: When he walks through commencement on May 22, he has two jobs waiting.

His potential employers? A Cleveland-based gear manufacturer that works with wind turbines -- and Lorain County Community College, where he will become the first graduate of a new program aimed at supplying Ohio's slowly-but-surely growing wind turbine industry.

While LaBonte won't say which offer he's inclined to take, he considers both plums: "At least for awhile, I think it would be really great to do both," he says thoughtfully.

As some traditional industries close plants and lay off workers, many economic development specialists say Ohio's future lies in high-tech jobs related to areas like advanced materials, advanced and alternative energy, information technology and biomedical devices.

Ohio's 29 community colleges, whose primary role is to supply skilled workers to a changing employment landscape, understand. And so do a rising number of new high school graduates and out-of-work Ohioans who are looking for promising jobs in growing economic sectors.

It's blowing in the wind

Duncan Estep, program coordinator for alternative energy technologies at Lorain, described how his fledgling wind turbine program began there.

"I was on sabbatical . . . at a small company called General Electric," he says, smiling. "I had the opportunity to work there for about 14 months. And one of the things I had was access to their employee job postings. And there was a pretty high demand for wind turbine technicians. So, it just seemed to click and make sense."

When he returned to Lorain last year, he began putting the program together.

"And what we're finding is that it was a pretty good guess, that from a utility scale standpoint, the Ohio Siting Board just released 500-odd megawatts of projects in Hardin and Champaign counties. Also, the residential turbines are highly supported by the state government."

Estep, who also coordinates the college's partnership with FirstEnergy to "train linemen of the future," says he had planned for a wind turbine enrollment of 24; he ended up with more than 100.

Power for tomorrow

Ohio's growing fuel cell industry is also starting to be reflected on community college campuses across the state. For example, fuel cell manufacturer NextTech Materials has hired at least half a dozen Hocking College graduates because of the quality of their training in industrial ceramics, says Lora Thrun, NexTech's director of commercialization.

Ohio's poster child for all things fuel cell may be Stark State College of Technology, which is credited not only with training workers for new industries, but helping land one of the biggest fish in all of northern Ohio: Rolls Royce Fuel Cell Systems.

Ohio beat out both Michigan and Virginia in 2007 when Rolls Royce chose Canton for its new North American headquarters. One reason was the establishment of the Fuel Cell Prototyping Center on the Stark State campus in 2006. A collaborative effort by Stark State, Case Western Reserve University, the Stark Development Board and fuel cell manufacturer SOFco-EFS Holdings, the center is ground zero for testing and demonstrating advances in the new technology.

"The original design of the prototype center was to have probably several small companies in it," says Jim Maloney, interim director of fuel cell technology at Stark State. Today, charter tenant Rolls Royce fills the entire center and continues to expand its capabilities there.

Steve Paquette, president of the Stark Development Board, said the college's strong technical training programs and its educational leadership within the region has been instrumental in helping to attract both Rolls and other companies.

"Stark State is really kind of our gateway to the whole point about attracting new alternative energy companies," Paquette says. "Stark State can provide technicians and interns and that's very attractive to companies that are looking to move into an area."

Meanwhile, the region's growth in alternative energy is drawing more students to Stark State's fuel cell curricula, Maloney says, noting that students can pursue two certificate programs related to fuel cells as well as a two-year mechanical engineering technology degree with a fuel cell option.

It's still about manufacturing

Manufacturing has not gone away, of course. But young Ohioans looking for manufacturing jobs are faced with a new paradigm: the need for more specialized skills and increasingly high-tech applications.

Rhodes State College, in partnership with American Trim, is advancing such skills within its Advanced Materials Commercialization Center, which is helping to lead development of more environmentally friendly, more cost-competitve chrome plating processes. It's now readying a new Materials Deposition Center to help bring new coating technolgies into production-scale application systems.

And the West Central Ohio Manufacturing Consortium, established at Rhodes State in 2005 after a survey of 43 manufacturers in the Allen County area identified the skills their workers would need in the future, is helping train northwest Ohioans in more advanced techniques.

"Manufacturing is still going to be here, but it's a different type of manufacturing. It's going to require more advanced skills and different kinds of skills," says Doug Durliat, director of the consortium.

In the end, the role of the community college is to prepare workers for the ever-changing needs of the community -- often in partnership with businesses and economic development interests. Witness Sinclair Community College's non-credit composites technician program now under way at the National Composite Center in Kettering, a partnership between the NCC, Sinclair, Montgomery County Job and Family Services and local businesses.

"The composites training technician (program) is the biggest program in training that we've actually partnered up on," says Lisa Novelli, NCC's president. "You know, the GM days, the automotive days at least in the Ohio region are few and far between, so we needed to prepare these people for a new technology."

The five-week program consists of classroom theory, hands-on training at NCC and experience working with composites manufacturers. Fifty Dayton-area participants have completed the first of two rounds; another 50 are currently in the program. Twelve have landed new jobs, Novelli says.

Deb Norris, Sinclair's vice president of workforce development and corporate services, says the college prepares training programs in partnership with a broad consortium of government, economic development and business interests. The current consensus, based on analysis of the marketplace, is that workers will be especially needed in the growing areas of composites and acquisition -- particularly acquisition related to military operations like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. (Thus, an acquisitions program is also under way.)

"I think what's really important for regions like ours is that we identify our areas of focus and we understand where our strategic growth industries are," Norris says. "Those are the ones that we invest in."

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