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Rebecca Green | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Sherry Coker

Executive Director, Ozarks Technical Community College Center for Workforce Development

Posted online

Workforce challenges are top of mind for employers, hiring signs are all around and wages are rising. Help us gauge the temperature of the labor market as someone who has been in the business of workforce development for many years.
If you are in the business of workforce education and training, you’ve warned about this for 15, 16 years like I have. It is not something unexpected; it’s just been sped up. COVID made a lot of people change their minds about how long they were going to work, what they were going to do. If our unemployment rate was at zero, we would still have two jobs for every person that we have right now. It is critical, but it’s not something that’s not insurmountable. We have to think forward to where we want our companies to be. And that’s what OTC is trying to do. We are making available opportunities to educate your workforce in technologies that are going to help overcome this workforce challenge. Although automation is not going to take the place of a worker, it’s going to help enhance the job. When you think about going to a McDonald’s, you no longer have someone that’s needed to take an order – you can do that from your app. It changes the look of those jobs. Now, I’m not going to stand here and tell you that there aren’t going to be jobs lost. I think that’s true. But it’s going to be some of those jobs that are the hardest to fill. If we can improve the type of job that individuals have and make those more desirable, then haven’t we won in the long term?

Among the certifications and skills training at OTC, what are the most common needs from area businesses?
If you’re hiring someone off the street that has no understanding of what it’s like to work in construction, manufacturing, heating and air conditioning, ventilation, plumbing, drafting and design, you name it, then there could be a high likelihood of those people quitting on you before they ever even get started. What if you partnered with the Center for Workforce Development at OTC and we did that preemployment training or even preemployment career exploration? I can identify people that are a good fit. I can’t take someone in just four weeks and make them an expert at anything, whether that be framing, roofing, bricklaying, HVAC, but I can make them employable. We have a 68% completion rate for all of our short-term training programs that we’ve offered in the last three semesters. That’s not a bad number when you look at some of the completion rates for some of the longer programs. The challenge with these short-term training programs is they don’t qualify for federal financial aid. Our chancellor has let me run these no-cost, short-term training programs for three semesters. It’s just something that’s not sustainable. The goal was to get employers to see the value and then have them help me create some type of financial assistance program. Our HVAC assistant program, you have supplies and you have books and you have space and you have instructor costs, that one is $1,695. Welding construction, you’re looking at $3,400 a person. That’s based on a 10-person size class.

We’re standing in the Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing, which is nearing its August opening. How will this facility impact workforce development efforts in the region?
No. 1, it’s the first of its kind in the state. Talent attraction-wise, I want to go to OTC because I want to see what’s going on in that building. It will also help bring different employers here. The second big draw will be the ability to have young people get an opportunity to physically come visit this building and see for themselves how stuff is made. That’s a huge opportunity when children today are not as exposed to manufacturing. Of course, the final is the education that takes place here. The fact that we are training on the skills that employers tell us they need is phenomenal.

You’re on the board of the Springfield Tech Council. How does that group align with workforce development?
We launched a membership campaign in January and now we have over 83 memberships that represent over 350 people in the southwest Missouri area. Here’s our goal, it’s twofold: to bring awareness to what we have right here in Springfield, Missouri, with tech. No. 2 is to create that connection. In other communities, the tech community is oftentimes fragmented. We want to create that hub. We have a jobs board. We have a resume board. Right now, we have a campaign where we’re allowing any student that wants to join the Springfield Tech Council to join for free. The goal is to have students interacting with employers and have specific events geared toward bringing the two together and solving some of the workforce crisis.

Sherry Coker can be reached at cokers@otc.edu.

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