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Community college may face new enrollment challenge

The pandemic has made it clear that community colleges have a lot of competition for enrollment. Recent high school graduates are making other plans, leaving community college classrooms empty. Nationally, first-time community college enrollment has dropped by more than 20% since the onset of the pandemic. Complicating matters is the fact that the nation is approaching full employment. December unemployment was 3.9%.

An article in the Lansing State Journal last week hints at a new problem. The item described the current state of the job market in Lansing, which is seeing labor shortages in some areas. Sparrow Health System, the third-largest employer in Ingham County, currently has about 400 open positions. Its director of talent acquisition, Sherry Pfaff-Doody, discussed what the hospital is doing to recruit workers into certain positions.

One of the ways Sparrow Health System is trying to attract employees is by creating six different ‘grow-your-own-programs.’ “So what that means is we will actually hire people and we will train them in the role so they’re not like going to a two-year degree program and paying out of pocket for that education,” she said. “We’re saying, come work for us, give us a two-year commitment, and we’ll train you in this specific area.”

In other words, one of the area’s largest employers is actively redirecting people away from community college education. Sparrow Health System is offering on-the-job, paid training to the employee.

“No need to spend money or time at a community college. We’ll teach you what you need to know to do the job.”

How do you like them apples?

Given that Lansing Community College probably has two-year programs that train workers in Sparrow’s “grow your own program” areas, that must sting a little bit.

When employers bypass the community college

This speaks to two things and possibly a third. First, Sparrow Health System is so desperate for workers that they will forgo previously required qualifications for new hires in certain positions. Second, Sparrow is confident that it can train new hires adequately enough to meet its needs without involving the community college. And what if Sparrow Health isn’t finding what it needs among the graduates of two-year degree programs?

Sparrow Health System is not unique in facing labor shortages. Almost certainly, Washtenaw County employers face the same staffing challenges. As a point of comparison, Michigan Medicine and St. Joseph Mercy Hospital combined have more than 1,000 open positions today. What prevents them from taking the same approach to hiring for certain positions?

Under these circumstances, why should a community college bend over backwards to meet the workforce development needs of local employers? How should the community college respond when the third-largest employer in the county actively redirects people away from its classrooms?

Photo Credit: churl , via Flickr