NEW YORK -- Cows love alfalfa. Feeding it to them, however, involves a complicated seed-supply chain running from the farms of California's Central Valley through a processing facility and onto trucks. In the middle are the people who manage the machines that clean the seeds.
Finding qualified people for that highly technical job can be a challenge, said Dan Karsten, vice president of operations for S&W Seed Co. He has tried everything he could think of -- from a big job fair in Fresno to ads in the local newspaper.
"You know, you go through all that effort and you meet a lot of people, but the skill set that you're looking for is not that readily available," Karsten said.
In the Central Valley, cursed with some of the nation's highest unemployment rates, there are a surprising number of employers with problems like Karsten's: jobs that are too hard to fill.
Whether that supposed skills gap is holding back the American economy at large is a hotly debated topic. If the gap is real anywhere, however, it is real in the Central Valley, where many workers -- often immigrants who moved to the area to work on farms or in construction -- lack the education for highly technical work like that in S&W's processing facility. To solve problems like Karsten's, a consortium of community colleges in the area is trying something new: restructuring entire curriculula with the help of local businesses, and wrapping support services like tutors around technical classes to make sure students avoid remedial instruction whenever possible.
The new model, increasingly being used in places around the country, is called "career pathways," and for Christopher Lacy, a 20-year Navy veteran who left the service in September, it turned out to be exactly that. Just a few months ago, with the help of the West Hills Community College District, he found a job as a production manager at S&W. From learning how to set up a computer spreadsheet to writing a resume, he said, the services the community college provided involved a lot more than just mechanics. And while he needed relatively little help, for classmates a little further behind, there were tutors.
"I count my blessings every day I wake up and come into work," Lacy said. "The best thing that happened to me was going to West Hills."
Working to create more success stories like that may seem like a no-brainer for community colleges in an economically depressed area like the Central Valley. From 2005 to 2009, according to the Brookings Institution, the area was home to four of the 10 U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest average education gaps: Stockton, Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield-Delano. The difference between the education employers want and what workers have is most pronounced in these places.
Colleges hoping to follow West Hills' lead, however, face serious challenges. California community colleges, the largest higher-education system in the nation, have suffered devastating budget cuts. If a tax initiative proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) fails in November, the situation will get even worse -- including possible campus closures. The idea of providing students with more services, and doing the time-consuming work of cooperating with local businesses, may seem far-fetched if the cuts go into effect.
"The budget cuts are incredible," said Linda Collins, executive director of the Career Ladders Project, which supports schools in the state looking to adopt a career-pathways model. California already has some career-pathways programs, which are supposed to change "the way in which we approach students who have basic skills needs, or who are not quite college ready, but who with the right support could be there very quickly."
But, Collins said, "anything that costs more is vulnerable." So rolling out the method to more colleges, even with the help of a federal grant, will not be easy.
The challenges are manifold, acknowledged Carole Goldsmith, vice chancellor of educational services and workforce development for West Hills. But the 11 Central California community colleges that belong to the C6 Consortium, which received a $20 million federal Trade Adjustment Assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in September, may actually succeed in doing more with less, she said.
"Oftentimes education is fragmented -- we have student support services going on on one side of the campus and academic buildings on the other side," Goldsmith said. The result is that students wind up taking courses they don't really need, or, worse, dropping out after taking a few remedial courses without ever being exposed to their chosen field. The student wastes time, racks up debt, and the college sacrifices a precious enrollment slot for no reason.
Critics of public-private partnerships often worry that corporations will wind up calling the shots. That's of particular concern in a system that was originally meant to transfer many of its students to four-year colleges. Goldsmith was quick to say, "We're not simply training people for an employer -- that's a mistake."
But the way many community colleges have traditionally worked, Goldsmith said, is broken. Students pick and choose courses without ever talking to a counselor, and are never given an opportunity to consider whether they actually want a bachelor's degree. In place of that sometimes chaotic system, she said, career pathways turns the college into a "drill sergeant. We're going to advise the student on that process."
"We have a lot of first-generation students, a lot of language learners, so there's a lot of time a gap in skills between students who are going on to four-year degrees and students who just need some training to get a job," said Goldsmith's colleague, Angela Allison, the director of the Central Valley Career Advancement Academies, the model for the C6 Consortium.
The colleges will also rely on another military technique -- "cohorts" of like-minded students who can support each other. "I keep in touch with them, actually," Lacy said. "And most of the jobs they found were from West Hills -- West Hills set up interviews for them."
As the work of Goldsmith and Allison expands to the 11 colleges in the C6 Consortium, they will focus on agriculture manufacturing, health care and alternative energy. Partners in the business world will include household names like Dole Foods and Toyota Motor Sales.
Working with employers in the alternative-energy world, the colleges will be able to fine-tune existing offerings and add new ones, said Courtney Kalashian, director of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, which is taking the lead on part of the Labor Department grant. Businesses worried, for example, that graduates didn't understand the fundamental economics of clean energy -- so colleges will add a course in that.
If all goes as planned, the results will yield benefits for both employers, job-seekers and the valley at large. Now that Karsten has found one employee for the seed company through West Hills, he said, "on a go-forward basis, that's the first place I'm looking."