PCC Futures Conference: Listening to the community

ChancellorI had the privilege earlier this week of hosting an event that has helped put the “community” back into Pima Community College – the first PCC Futures Conference.

The diversity of the more than 200 people who took part in the conference was remarkable. Students, business owners, educators, community-group and government leaders participated. They sat down with PCC faculty, staff, administrators and members of the Governing Board to discuss the wide variety of ways the College can better serve the people of our region.

The conference was a milestone event for our strategic planning process. We know we need to get insights from the community in order to map out the College’s most outward-looking initiatives over the next three to five years.

Certainly, PCC is overdue for change. To take a phrase from Intel Corp. founder Andy Grove, the College and the nation are at a “strategic inflection point,” a time when major shifts are taking place in the competitive environment. Though the United States remains the greatest nation on Earth, there are cracks in the foundation. The American Dream – the inter-generational covenant that children, with hard work, can be more successful than their parents – is in peril.

Demographic shifts are compelling new directions in higher education, especially at community colleges such as PCC. In the U.S., 78 million Baby Boomers are heading toward retirement. Their replacements in the current and future workforce are some 48 million Americans ages 14-24. Compare that with 450 million young people in India and 420 million in China, two nations whose young people are overtaking young Americans educationally. The U.S. cannot remain competitive if our children cannot succeed in school and the workplace. Jobs will go where the best employees are.

The education gap has been well documented, and I have written about it in this space before. U.S. 15-year-olds are falling behind the rest of the world: We are 26th in mathematics, 21st in science and 17th in reading. For adults, the numbers are equally bleak: 21st in numeracy and 15th in literacy, including digital literacy, the ability to use online resources information gathering and problem solving. This is especially important because 77 percent of U.S. corporations use online resources to train workers, and one-third of U.S. college students are taking at least one online course.

Globalization is also forcing major change. Ninety-five percent of U.S. companies’ potential consumers live outside the U.S. One in six U.S. jobs is tied to trade; in some states, 40 percent of jobs are trade-connected. Americans need to be aware of other societies, for the simple reason it’s smart to know what your competitors are up to. Yet, as has been documented by the Abraham Lincoln Commission for Study Abroad, only 20 percent of Americans hold passports.

These factors are behind the inability to fill some 4 million jobs in the U.S., with the problem particularly acute in manufacturing: Sixty-seven percent of the National Association of Manufacturers report shortages of qualified workers. The American Society for Training and Development reports that 84 percent of its members say they have difficulty finding work-ready employees, who often lack the so-called “soft” skills: communication, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving. The mismatch also is evident in that only 27 percent of college graduates are hired for a job related to their major. Community colleges are uniquely positioned to train the workforce for middle-skill, living-wage manufacturing jobs that can form the core of stable, prosperous communities. But they need to do better. Pima Community College needs to do better. Tucsonans are acutely aware of the consequences of living in the sixth-most impoverished city of its size in the U.S. I repeat: We need to do better.

So it was heartening to hear that the themes emerging from the Futures Conference meshed well with PCC’s challenges and opportunities. The participants astutely had the ultimate metric – a good job — in mind in urging us to create a cradle-to-career culture of success at PCC. We need to partner with area business and economic development groups to quickly and precisely align our programs with industry needs, standards and trends. We need to partner with K-12 districts and bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions to create “preschool-through-workforce” education pathways. And we must regain the public’s trust, by successfully emerging from probation and by constantly engaging with our constituents so that we can identify their needs and help them achieve their goals.

The next step in our process is to align the general goals emerging from the Futures Conference with our current and projected resources, and determine a series of actions that PCC can undertake over the next three to five years to achieve those goals. Each action should have a discernible measure of success, a deadline for completion and a responsible person or group at PCC. Our Strategic Plan should be ready in the spring and will be shared with the public, and our six campuses and work units within the College, which are devising plans of their own.

Throughout the process, we will keep Futures Conference participants apprised of our progress. Our goal is to reconvene the Conference in 2016, to share with the public our successes and failures. We will be dreaming big, but we also must keep our everyday focus on the programs and services we offer the community. General Motors CEO Mary Barra of her company, “The most important thing we have to drive into the business every day is that it all starts and ends with great product. We have to make sure every aspect of product meets the customer’s needs.” Working with our community partners, PCC can create a culture of integrated, continuous improvement. Our customers deserve nothing less.

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