fast times: tri-c workforce division putting students on the job

Changing careers can be a difficult journey, regardless of a fulfillment-seeking wanderer's age or economic standing. However, the older a person gets, the less time they have to start that long voyage toward a new vocation.
Fortunately, there are more expeditious alternatives for those retracing their steps on the job trail, says Susan Muha, executive vice president of Cuyahoga Community College’s Workforce and Economic Development Division. The division's focus is job retraining, meaning adult employment seekers don't need to go back to school for a bachelor's degree.
"One way or another, it's all about connecting people with the job market," says Muha, a decade-long veteran of Tri-C's workforce division.
Throughout its layers of jobs-centric programming, the school works with about 15,000 to 20,000 participants annually. Many of these students have already attended a university and have little desire to go back. Tri-C offers training and certification programs measured in weeks or months rather than years, allowing prospective job seekers to be launched back into rotation quickly.
The school's charges desire to change fields for a variety of reasons, notes Muha. Some might accept a job only to discover their skills don't match what the market requires. Others have been laid off, or want to return to work after accepting early retirement packages. The ages of these workers -- from entry-level to the highly-trained incumbent -- range from 18 to 65.
While their backgrounds may differ, the aim is to usher all students into high-growth, high-demand careers, Muha says. Tri-C is partnering with 600 companies, most located within Cuyahoga County, in industries including advanced manufacturing, network support and healthcare IT. Division officials use labor market data to ensure its training covers industry sectors that are relevant to the region.
"We're always asking local employers what kind of programs fit," says Muha. "We have a very good idea of what's happening in real time."
Getting with the programs
Tri-C runs anywhere from 80 to 100 programs per year. Mechatronics, or industrial maintenance, has been in particular demand, as local companies like Brewer-Garrett and Siemens need skilled employees able to fix HVAC and other complex infrastructural systems.
The college also recently launched a software program providing students with knowledge for a career in web application development utilizing the .NET programming framework. Qualified candidates take 12 weeks of mentored instruction followed by a 12-week paid internship at one of 10 participating companies.
The speediness of the Tri-C program aligns with the call for these high-tech positions to be filled, says Muha. "These companies are not going to wait years for IT students to come out," she says. "Often times they'll just hire people from out of the country. We want to keep this work in Cleveland."
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) operations are another area of focus at Tri-C. CNC machinists work with heavy machinery to produce parts and tools from metal and plastic. This precision equipment cuts, grinds or drills into materials while machinists make adjustments to control speed and path of the cut.
The school sends instructors to companies like Swagelok to teach employees the basics of CNC. PyroTek, a Solon-based manufacturer of aluminum-producing equipment, has hired four program graduates over the last two years, three of whom are still with the company.
This type of work is not new, but there has been a shortage of CNC operators nationwide as manufacturing is sourced to low-cost labor countries, says PyroTek operations manager Kirk Young.
The firm initially approached Tri-C's workforce division to fill these vacant jobs, and became impressed enough with the school's economic development mission to join its advisory board, Young says.
"Prior to those hires we were behind on our production schedule," he says. "Tri-C helped us get caught up. Now we have some good, energetic guys who we hope will be with us for a long time."
The school has been taking feedback from Young, who sits on the board. Among other improvements, he would like to see program attendees get more hands-on time with CNC machines before they enter the workforce. Otherwise, he's pleased to see the college put Clevelanders to work in a critical sector of manufacturing.
"We'll continue to support [Tri-C's] efforts for as long as they continue to do it," says Young.
The more you know...
Keeping apprised of hot jobs in various industries is part of Tri-C's DNA, says Muha, who points to such additional work division programs as truck driving, network support and medical coding and billing. The challenge is not just connecting people with work, but bringing them a full understanding of just what a position entails.
"Many students don't know about mechatronics, or what a health navigator does at a hospital," Muha says. "That's the kind of information we're providing."
Knowledge is power, as is keeping workforce development students in the area once they graduate. As the jobs that need filling are here, most participants remain within a 150-mile radius of Cleveland.
With an excess of age-friendly programming, Muha expects Tri-C to set thousands of more folks on their way to a new and rewarding career, while not requiring anything that approaches a four-year degree to get started.
"Our programming has been successful for a long time," says Muha. "People need to understand that they have options."

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.