Homegrown education

By Ed Finkel

A rural community college helps close a skills gap while keeping students close to home.

While economic dislocations have buffeted some parts of the country, leading to new programs to serve displaced workers, other community colleges have been adding programs that address the needs of older-school industries changing due to automation. Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Michigan, in fall 2017 launched an agricultural technology program focused on equipment maintenance and repair that the institution believes is the only one of its kind in the state.

The impetus is not that the economy in the southern portion of the state is struggling, says Valorie Juergens, executive director of communications and marketing. “Business is everywhere. Factories are looking for people,” she says. “But there’s not a super-amount of loyalty. If [workers] can get 50 cents more, they’ll quit after six months and get another job. Everywhere you go, they’re looking for people.”

Reid Leaverton, agricultural equipment technology instructor, agrees that manufacturing and agricultural jobs are still prevalent—but certain fields, like ag tech, face a looming bubble of soon-to-be retirees with fewer younger workers skilling up to replace them.

“There’s a big generation gap,” he says. “The economy has bounced back since the recession in ’08, so there’s demand. And there’s technology that makes it easier for the farmer—John Deere has a fully automated tractor that doesn’t require a driver. But the technology side is an industry within itself.” He adds, “The ag economy is hurting because of crop prices. But the equipment needs to be there, for them to do their jobs.”

Leaverton, who graduated high school in 2003, believes his generation bypassed fields like ag tech because of the emphasis on four-year college degrees in the years prior to the Great Recession. “All of my friends are in the same boat,” he says. “I decided to go to vocational school. It was almost scoffed at. … We’re trying to come back to that. But it’s hard to get kids interested who grew up with an iPhone.”

Jobs like ag tech had developed a stigma because they involved going home dirty, but that’s no longer necessarily the case, Juergens says. “We have to communicate that. We have to show them what an auto factory looks like now,” she says. “You don’t have to be that person who’s going to go [to college] for four years. You can get your certificate.”

In its first year, the ag tech program at Glen Oaks has succeeded in attracting a good crop of students, Leaverton says. “They’re being motivated by financial reasons,” he says. “They know that in two years, they can leave college and make $50,000 to $60,000.”

One student is a 25-year union member who’s in his late 40s and told Leaverton that he wasn’t sure his previous field would sustain him until retirement. “I’m getting into something I know I can do” well into the future, the student said.

Another reason for the interest in automation and ag tech is that fewer and fewer farms are family owned, which means they have greater acreage and need larger machinery. This has also spurred growth in the two-year-old agricultural operations program at Glen Oaks, a partnership with Michigan State University, which has gained the interest of five major equipment brands.

The program provides both an associate of applied science from Glen Oaks and an agricultural operations certificate from Michigan State, with all coursework completed at Glen Oaks. The second-year students in that program all have been placed in employment, Leaverton says. “They’re going to farming operations or dealerships, the majority to dealerships,” he says. “I have constant phone calls with people. My phone’s never stopped ringing. That’s a good problem to have.”

This is an excerpt of an article that will be featured in the upcoming December/January issue of Community College Journal. Check your mailboxes in mid-December!

Ed Finkel

is an education writer based in Illinois.