As the Auto Industry Shrinks, a Community College Retools

May 08, 2009

In 1954, Chrysler introduced its "newest, smoothest" ride, the Dodge Royal sedan, which rolled off the assembly line with a glossy two-tone paint job and state-of-the-art V-8 engine. That same year, just northeast of Detroit, Macomb Community College opened its doors, with a mission to prepare the vehicle designers, auto-parts makers, and mechanics who kept Motor City running.

Today the American auto industry has stalled. Only an infusion of federal bailout funds has, thus far, saved two of the Big Three automakers. Motor-vehicle-manufacturing jobs in Michigan, long a backbone of the state's economy, plunged 30 percent in the last year alone.

Community colleges across the country are being asked to educate more students with less money, but the sudden collapse of the carmaking sector has compounded the stresses of the current economic slump on Macomb. "We're sort of a poster child for how bad it can get," says James Jacobs, the college's president.

While Macomb is a comprehensive college, with a variety of degrees and certificates, it has been, in essence, Chrysler's community college, building a strength in automotives that, Mr. Jacobs says, is "narrow and deep." Now the college must reinvent itself somewhat, retooling its automotive expertise to educate students in fields where jobs are more plentiful, like advanced manufacturing, automated systems, and even graphic design.

Macomb is linking with universities to offer bachelor's degrees as well as setting up several not-for-credit vocational programs to move workers into positions, such as nursing-home aide and administrative assistant, that promise a paycheck, albeit not a generous one.

Still, with unemployment rates in Detroit and its suburbs at 14 percent, the highest of any major metropolitan area, Macomb faces the prospect of preparing a work force for whom there is no work. "Frankly, there is no magic bullet," says James Sawyer, vice provost for career programs. "We're taking a calculated risk."

For one, Macomb officials are gambling on the emergence of a refashioned, greener car industry, and they are trying to encourage such a shift by working to be a hub for training in electric and hybrid fuel-cell technology.

Economic-development experts say community colleges can be a pivotal partner in efforts to "recast" a local economy when a once-dominant employer falters. "They have the ability to help move a region in a different direction," says James F. McKenney, vice president for economic development at the American Association of Community Colleges. "But that doesn't mean it isn't painful."

Reinventing Themselves

Elsewhere, regional economies have taken what Mr. McKenney calls "solar-plexus punches," reeled, and then found a new footing, with assists from local community colleges. Pittsburgh, long synonymous with steel, now counts education and health care, which typically have been more resistant to downturns, as two of its largest employers. A primary supplier of the region's radiological technicians, respiratory therapists, and medical assistants is the Community College of Allegheny County. Allegheny also produces 500 registered nurses a year, more than almost any other community college in the country.

North Carolina turned to biotechnology as its three traditional industries — tobacco, textiles, and furniture-making — weakened. To ready laboratory technicians and biomanufacturing-plant workers, the community-college system created a statewide "BioNetwork" to coordinate specialized training and curricula. Today, North Carolina accounts for 10 percent of the biotech jobs nationwide.

"The beauty of community colleges is that we can turn on a dime," says H. Martin Lancaster, who recently retired as president of the North Carolina Community College system. "By the time a university gets a building built, we can train a work force."

Nationally, there is a growing recognition of the critical role community colleges can play in economic recovery. The economic-stimulus bill signed by President Obama earlier this year called on community colleges to help deliver $3.95-billion in job training.

But Mr. Jacobs, the Macomb president, says his college — and his community — can't afford to wait for stimulus dollars. About 27,000 people filed for unemployment in Macomb County and its smaller neighbor, St. Clair County, during the first 11 weeks of 2009, says John H. Bierbusse, director of the local office of Michigan Works!, a government agency for work-force development. That is triple the number who registered for benefits during the same period a year earlier.

A Complementary Curriculum

Times, however, were once very good in the backyard of the world's carmaking capital. Motor-vehicle plants ate up vast acreage in the county, fed by a capillary-like web of nearby auto-parts suppliers. General Motors located its technical center, an Eero Saarinen-designed building dubbed the "Versailles of Industry" and the hub for its design and research work, in the city of Warren, just a mile from one of Macomb's four campuses. Even the U.S. Army established its tank command there, to be close to automotive know-how.

At one time, a third of Macomb County's labor force worked in automobile or related industries. Just a half-dozen other counties nationwide are so dominated by a single manufacturing sector, says Mr. Jacobs, who is a national expert on work-force development.

From its origins, Macomb Community College was a direct channel into the car industry. At the height of Detroit's market dominance, 70 percent of apprentices for Chrysler got instruction as machinists, electricians, and sheet-metal workers at Macomb, Mr. Jacobs says. The college was the principal training ground for auto-body designers at the GM tech center and enrolled as many as 1,000 students in the program annually. (The number now is below 300.)

As automakers innovated, so did Macomb. Early automotive-design students, for instance, worked with T squares and straight edges, but as such work became computerized, Macomb changed its instruction, even purchasing the proprietary computer systems used by each major manufacturer.

To an extent, Macomb is still adapting its curriculum to complement, and even encourage, advances in the car industry. Some 1,700 people have received training on hybrid-electric vehicles through the college's three-year-old Center for Alternative Fuels, including mechanics and emergency personnel who risk electrocution if they improperly respond to a crash of one of the vehicles.

The U.S. Army Tacom Life Cycle Management Command, which is located in the county and manages the service's ground-vehicle fleet, contracts with Macomb to provide highly specialized instruction in maintaining and repairing military trucks, tanks, and weapons systems.

But, increasingly, the college is applying the depth of its manufacturing expertise to the development of programs outside of the automotive sector. Its new program in mechatronics, for example, combines mechanics, electronics, and computer technology to prepare students to program, troubleshoot, and operate highly automated machinery. Graduates will be ready for jobs in a variety of mechanized industries, including food processing, pharmaceuticals, and mail handling, says Arthur W. Knapp, a professor and a creator of the program.

A key role community colleges can play in economic transitions is to identify the correlations in skills between disappearing jobs and emerging industries, says Julian L. Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center, a think tank in New York. Assembly-line jobs, he points out, have a lot in common with quality-control work in biotechnology. "You need someone who understands the opportunities," he says.

An Unclear Economic Picture

In the brand-new mechatronics classroom, Mr. Knapp's students cluster in small groups around seven high-tech stations to get hands-on training in robotics, sensors, and valves. One machine, on which students learn about gears and pulleys, is the size of a refrigerator and far louder. Sometimes, in the thick of the four-hour class period, it can seem like "organized chaos," Mr. Knapp says.

Such equipment costs money, of course. Macomb spent about $1-million renovating two mechatronics laboratories, Mr. Knapp says. The college paid another $1-million to refurbish a building that will serve as the site for its noncredit certified-nursing-assistant program, says Donald Ritzenhein, provost and chief learning officer. Updating the skills of instructors like Mr. Knapp, who is a professor of electronic technology, has a price as well.

Macomb officials say they carefully weigh the costs of new programs but that, thus far, no effort that has advanced in its planning has been halted because of lack of funds. In fact, Macomb trustees recently voted to hold tuition at $72 per credit hour, in part because increased enrollment, to a degree due to worker-retraining programs, has brought in additional revenue from tuition. The college has also had some success in winning grants to cover some of the expense, such as $450,000 from the National Science Foundation for its work on alternative fuels and advanced automotive technology.

For all Macomb's efforts at innovation, the job picture remains uncertain. When Mr. Knapp and his colleagues were designing the mechatronics program two years ago, local employers were enthusiastic. Now he is unsure whether he will be able to find internships for his first class of students, who are finishing up the second of three semesters.

"It's scary," he says, adding that he tells his students, many of whom are unemployed autoworkers, "This is investing in your future. I'm not promising you a job."

Mr. Bierbusse, the local workforce-development director, says nearly 1,000 students have enrolled at Macomb over the last year and a half through Michigan's No Worker Left Behind program, which provides up to two years of free training or college tuition. But many dislocated workers are staying away from manufacturing-related courses, he says.

In fact, the college initially had trouble filling its advanced-manufacturing boot camp, an intensive six-week, eight-hour-a-day course in computer-operated machining, meant for laid-off workers whose experience was on manual equipment. Despite the rocky start and the bumpy economic climate, six of seven students have already found work since the end of the first course, in early March.

Emil Peterson is one of the successful boot-camp graduates. Now 54 years old, Mr. Peterson had worked as a tool-and-die maker since he was 18, eventually opening his own shop. But in 2006, he was forced out of business when his major customer, an auto-parts supplier, declared bankruptcy, leaving $98,000 in unpaid bills. Unable to find work, Mr. Peterson fell behind on his own payments and his home went into foreclosure; the bank seized an account he jointly held with his 84-year-old mother to cover a line of credit on which he had defaulted.

Even before the end of the boot camp, Mr. Peterson, who went through a Macomb apprenticeship program more than three decades earlier, had a job offer from DieTronik, a subsidiary of a major multinational auto-parts maker, American Axle & Manufacturing. He considers himself lucky to have work, although the job pays $9 less an hour than he once earned. And he admits some trepidation about once again working in the auto industry.

"Absolutely, I'm concerned," Mr. Peterson says. "But I'm 54 years old. What are my options?"

Career Goals

Other dislocated workers, though, are steering clear of auto-related course work. Thomas Marciano spent 34 years in the auto industry, but after going through his second plant closure, he passed on the offer of a transfer and instead used his job-training benefits to enroll in a two-year accounting program at Macomb. "I wanted something completely different," he says. "I think accounting is a pretty stable field."

Health care also is a popular choice. Some 1,155 students enrolled in for-credit health-care programs during the most recent term. Macomb recently increased the size of its nursing program by a third, to 160 students a year, but Mr. Ritzenhein, the provost, says waiting lists remain in nursing and in several other health-care programs.

The reason for the appeal is simple. John C. Austin, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and director of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, a philanthropic effort, notes that even in the down economy, the local nursing shortage is so acute that the Detroit area has imported 5,000 nurses from Canada.

Although No Worker Left Behind, the job-training program, covers two years of tuition, many participants opt against seeking degrees. With mortgages, tuition, and medical bills, many feel they must get back into the workplace. In response, Macomb has created more short-term training programs, in areas like home health care and secretarial work, to "get people on the payroll," says Mr. Jacobs, the president. "These jobs aren't high paying, but they're there."

Still, Mr. Jacobs argues that preparing for an immediate job shouldn't be an end unto itself. Even Macomb's noncredit training programs incorporate foundational skills, like mathematics and reading comprehension, that could help students return and take up college-level course work.

Macomb officials also are trying to reach out to the roughly 70,000 working adults in the county who have some college experience. And they are building stronger partnerships with nearby four-year institutions, like Wayne State and Oakland Universities, to better align degree programs and to allow students to concurrently enroll.

Such efforts, Mr. Jacobs says, will be important to the region's long-term economic vitality. "The purpose of a community college is not just to get people jobs," he says, "but to get people careers." Section: Money & Management Volume 55, Issue 35, Page A1