Editorial: Heartland to Choose New President in the Midst of Tough Challenges

With over 700 employees and 17,000 students (credit and non-credit), Heartland Community College offers 16 degrees and 34 certificates. (Image credit: Christian Prenzler)

With over 700 employees and 17,000 students (credit and non-credit), Heartland Community College offers 16 degrees and 34 certificates. (Image credit: Christian Prenzler)

Editorials are opinion pieces written by community members who serve on AdaptBN's Editorial Board. The opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of AdaptBN.

Who will be the next president of Heartland Community College? The decision by HCC’s Trustees, which is expected soon, is vital not only to the future of the college, but for the future of Bloomington-Normal and the surrounding communities. HCC’s current president, Rob Widmer, will retire June 30.

Three of the four finalists are currently employed in the traditional community college bureaucracy, including Doug Minter, Vice President of Business Services at HCC; Melinda Tejada, Vice President of Student Development at Waubonsee (IL) Community College; and Keith Cornille, Executive Vice President/Chief Student Services Officer at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin. The fourth candidate, Sherry Jones, has a unique background as Chief Operating Officer of Gamestop - Technology Brands Division.

Although Ms. Jones’s current job is outside the education field, she has 20 years of experience in education working for public, private, not-for-profit and commercial organizations. For example, before joining GameStop, she was Group President for Education Services at Xerox. She also led the startup of a new university in Australia as Managing Director of GLC Solutions. She has experience in online education, serving from 2004 to 2009 as Vice President of Operations and Dean of Independence University, a Salt Lake City-based, nonprofit online institution.

During a public forum, Ms. Jones said, “Community colleges are in a good position to respond to changes that are coming… as they are more agile than universities, making it easier to develop partnerships with private industries on shorter-term certificates that can be fed into longer-term educational programs,” (Pantagraph March 2, 2018).

Let’s explore some of those changes and opportunities.

There is intense focus on community college education today. The reasons include skyrocketing student debt to pay the ever-rising tuition costs for four-year public and private colleges; waning student interest in undergraduate subjects that do not promise financial reward; and the numerous certificate, credit and noncredit classes offered by community colleges in a diverse environment at an affordable cost. Students can choose college credit programs that transfer to senior universities, or choose shorter-term credit or noncredit certificate training that prepares them for the workforce in a short amount of time.

Although the job market in the U.S. is growing, so is the shortage of qualified applicants. The available jobs for manufacturers, nurses, plumbers, pipefitters, electricians, steamfitters, and medical and clinical laboratory technicians require technical skills, and pay median annual salaries that can range from $55,000 to $80,000 depending on the geographic area.

Katherine S. Newman writes about training workers in the new economy in her article “Make America Make Again” published in the January/February 2017 magazine of the Council on Foreign Affairs. Newman says, “Rising wages in developing countries, especially China, and increasing U.S. productivity have begun to make the U.S. much more attractive to manufacturers, who have added nearly half a million jobs since 2010…these jobs are not the same as the millions that disappeared from the U.S. over the past four decades… They are well-paying, middle-skill jobs that require technical qualifications, but not necessarily a four-year college degree.” Studies predict half of all new jobs created in the U.S. between 2012 and 2022 will require technical qualifications, but not necessarily a four-year college degree, Newman said.

In Bloomington-Normal, about 1,000 jobs will be created in the next 10 years if Rivian Automotive follows through on its plan to build electric cars and trucks at the former Mitsubishi factory. Rivian announced in December 2017 that it plans to start production in 2020 of a five-passenger pickup truck, saying its workforce would reach 500 employees by 2021. Since nearly $50 million in tax incentives from state and local government has been offered to Rivian as an incentive to locate here, it is important to them that the majority of their 500-employee workforce be hired from the local community.

Training for these positions likely will take place at Heartland Community College, which currently offers courses in Industrial Technology. According to Rick Pierce, Vice President for Learning and Student Success, “HCC staff has been engaged in ongoing discussions with the Rivian team concerning training opportunities… We are looking at ways in which we might adapt what we currently offer to better meet the emerging needs of Rivian, in addition to looking at new programs that might align well with current and future needs.”

HCC and other educational institutions face serious headwinds in developing training programs due to the state of the economy in Illinois and the budget deadlock that has resulted in uneven funding for educational programs, especially in the past few years. 

In 2017, our neighboring state of Indiana started a Workforce Ready Grant of $2 million to offer free tuition for community college certificate programs leading to a job in a high-value field. Like Illinois and many other states, Indiana faces a growing middle-skill gap. In 2015, 58% of jobs in Indiana were middle-skill, but only 47% of the state’s workers were trained to the middle-skill level. Indiana is addressing the skill shortages with a bipartisan coalition of state legislators, education policymakers, business, labor and community leaders to close the workforce/job gap. 

Similarly, it will take a bipartisan political effort in Illinois to move our state forward.  Pierce said that with “continued uncertainty about state funding, programs that we would classify as ‘Work Ready’—leading directly into the workforce—are generally very costly to develop and implement. It is a serious challenge for HCC to stand up new programs.” 

However, Pierce also said HCC continues to work with numerous industry partners across the district to identify gaps while striving to meet the needs of employers. Participants of most Work Ready programs are eligible for financial aid or can apply for limited scholarships from the Heartland Foundation.

A key component in skills training involves partnerships to develop apprenticeship programs. Our educational system should mimic Germany, where students apprentice not only for manufacturing jobs, but in other high demand fields that do not require a four-year college degree, such as nursing, allied health sciences, construction, electricity, electronics, robotics and more. 

U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill) recently announced their bipartisan bill to reinvigorate America’s apprenticeship programs in our skilled industries. The LEAP Act (H.R. 2399) uses tax incentives to encourage more companies to offer apprenticeship programs. Davis said, “We want more companies to utilize apprenticeships, not only to help reduce college debt, but also to help retrain our workforce.” Bridgestone, which employees 400 workers in Bloomington-Normal, currently faces a shortage of qualified workers, the same problem facing Caterpillar in Decatur, Rep. Davis said. 

Charles “Charlie” Moore, President & CEO of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce said, “We have two choices. One, continue to accept what the State hands us, or two, come up with a plan to unite locally to insulate Bloomington-Normal from the influence of the State. We have to ask ourselves if we are willing to do what we need to keep our community strong.”

One of the key components of keeping a strong community is our ability to educate our workers. That education is mostly likely to happen in a community with plentiful opportunities for middle-level training, like those provided in the community college setting. Hiring a president who fully understands these trends and the need for strong community college programs is HCC’s best avenue for helping the Bloomington-Normal community close the widening gap between available jobs and skilled workers to fill them.