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Educating our Skilled Work Force 

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As the economy rebounds, the Central Valley is terrified of being left behind. Residents look west and they see booming cities, chock-full of businesses. They look south and see rents rising faster than new housing high-rises. But the rebound has been slower in the Valley. Modesto has the land. It has the infrastructure. Tax and utility rates are favorable. So why aren’t businesses coming here? The reason, California State University, Stanislaus President Dr. Joseph Sheley says, is simple: Why would a company locate in Modesto with no skilled workforce ready to hire? Just 18.2 percent of Modesto residents hold a bachelor’s degree. “That’s pitiful,” Sheley said. “You can’t attract any new businesses if that’s your human capital.” It’s one of those chicken-and-egg scenarios. College graduates frequently leave the area because they can’t find jobs. But businesses don’t locate here because there aren’t enough skilled employees to fill their jobs. “You’re not going to look at the Central Valley if you’re going to have to import your labor when you get there,” Sheley said. So what’s the fix? How can Stanislaus County improve its labor force, and create the jobs to retain its labor force? Enter the Stanislaus Education Partnership, a new initiative that will see CSU Stanislaus, Modesto Junior College, and the Stanislaus County Office of Education join forces to change the culture of education in Stanislaus County — and create an educated work force. “We came in the door with a common goal of working together,” said Jill Stearns, Modesto Junior College President. “It’s exciting to see that really start to mesh.” It’s not always easy to work together, Stearns said. Different rules govern each system, but with the will to change — and some creativity — she has faith the partnership will succeed. The Partnership isn’t just about getting kids into college. It’s about getting them to start thinking about college early, and to be prepared for those tough college classes. Because of the uneducated nature of Stanislaus County’s population, it’s an uphill battle. Between 70 and 80 percent of CSU Stanislaus students are the first in their families to attend college. Those first generation students don’t have anyone to guide them through college applications, or financial aid. They can’t ask their parents for tips on registering for classes, or choosing a major. Planning for a successful college career starts early. The partnership wants to reach the families of children in the 6th or 7th grade to start the conversation about saving for tuition, about taking college preparatory classes. If students wait until after high school starts, after they’ve already begun taking the wrong classes, it becomes even harder to reach college. Proper preparation improves students’ chances of staying in college, and succeeding. Students who find themselves in remedial classes have a hard time catching up, let alone graduating. “It’s hard to win a race when you start at the back of the pack,” Sheley said. CSU Stanislaus’s graduation rate, about 54 percent within 6 years, is below statewide averages. But that’s because of the student population, Sheley said; first generation students, many of whom commute, work, and have families, tend to have a harder time graduating.

MJC faces similar challenges. If you walk into an MJC classroom, you’ll likely see a dual-enrolled high school student sitting between a typical college age student and a 50-year-old. In part, that’s because MJC serves a number of different populations, from those who hope to transfer to four-year institutions, to those pursuing a technical education, to those developing new skills.

“Our doors are open for anyone who would choose to come,” Stearns said.

MJC’s career technical programs create a sort of skilled, trained worker that CSU campuses don’t — and those career tech graduates are in high demand. Tesla has been hiring MJC auto body students into $60,000 per year jobs, while nurses and medical assistants are usually hired as soon as they graduate.

Those programs are expanding to meet the region’s needs, Stearns said. New career tech programs to train large animal veterinary technicians and drought-friendly irrigation technologists are launching soon.

And MJC will soon become one of the first California Community Colleges to offer a four-year degree as part of a new trial program; classes will start for a B.S. in Respiratory Care in January, 2017.

“We have tremendous, tremendous interest,” Stearns said. “It is an amazing opportunity for MJC to be selected as one of the pilot programs.”

Students who earn an associate’s degree earn $400,000 more than those with only a high school diploma, on average. But, again, many local children never even think about the benefits of college.

Public colleges facilities like MJC’s Great Valley Center provide an opportunity to get kids thinking about college. Students can explore hands-on science, or sit in a world-class planetarium that shows children a universe they’ve never seen through Modesto’s light-polluted skies.

“It’s to build a passion for science, for exploration, and the expectation among children that, ‘I can do this,’” Stearns said.

Already, MJC serves about 22,000 students annually. CSU Stanislaus issued 2,400 new college degrees this year.

And each one of those degrees changes lives, Sheley says. And each one of those degrees makes the Central Valley labor force stronger.

“You start to realize what a difference we are making in individuals’ lives, in their families’ lives,” Sheley said. “And here, it helps the region — not simply the individual who got a degree.”

Sheley hopes that the community can absorb the new graduates. That CSU Stanislaus and MJC’s students are partners in the region’s economic development.

And even if things aren’t rebounding here in the Central Valley quite as quickly as expected, and state education funding isn’t as plentiful as it could be, people here are working on making the region better. And that’s what really matters, Sheley says.

“Even though we don’t have all the resources we need, we’re focused on our common purpose,” Sheley said.

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