Hall: Community colleges are often an underrated resource | Opinion

This holiday season, I want to express my gratitude for an incredibly valuable but underrated resource that we have here in our area: community colleges.

Specifically, Kilgore College and Texas State Technical College-Marshall do a great job in the community. Kilgore offers double credit enrollment to the three public school districts in Longview proper. Most importantly for the Chamber, both offer unique and innovative opportunities to collaborate with our local industries.

As an example, the manufacturer Komatsu operates a “Komatsu University” program that helps high school students and adults achieve relevant certifications through TSTC and Kilgore. Eastman Chemical Company, Texas Operations donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships to Kilgore, then ultimately hired nearly half of the winners.

These types of partnerships are essential because industries in our region – and indeed across the country – struggle to find a skilled workforce. The pandemic has certainly made this problem worse, but it’s important to recognize that this trend predates our COVID contractions, and will likely persist even though we are now past the worst of the recession.

Last year the Longview Chamber worked with The graduation! Network to publish the Bridging The Talent Gap Study, with an in-depth survey of employers in the Longview area. One hundred percent (!) Scientific industry representatives reported “difficulty finding candidates for positions”, closely followed by medical, engineering and skilled trades. Each of these fields is based on positions requiring some type of post-secondary degree, but not always necessarily a bachelor’s degree.

Meanwhile, according to the same study, 25% of adults in Longview have a college degree but no degree. This is an untapped resource of over 36,000 community members for our understaffed industries, who would do well to emulate the success Eastman Chemical has found in working with Kilgore.

But too often government systems fail to encourage, if not actively discourage, this type of innovation. For example, Kilgore and TSTC are funded under completely different formulas, which complicates the collaboration between the two systems. Grants to promote workforce development go through unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. Students lack the flexibility to change lanes or return to class with previous credit hours intact.

This is why the work of the current Texas Commission on Community College Funding is vital to the future of East Texas. The commissioners “will make recommendations … to maintain viable education and training offerings at community colleges statewide.

The Longview Chamber fully supports this effort and hopes that any recommendations will be aimed at increasing both student completion and industry alignment. Commissioners should look to partnerships like Kilgore and Komatsu as role models to reward and replicate. Fortunately for everyone involved, the President of Kilgore, Dr Brenda Kays, has been appointed to serve by President Dade Phelan.

To the Graduate! In the network study mentioned above, 83% of companies expressed an interest in partnering with local colleges, but only 18% said they are currently participating in efforts. Our decision makers would do well to ask others what is stopping them. By lowering bureaucratic barriers and increasing accessibility for students, we can ensure that the incomes of employers and employees continue to grow.

– Kelly Hall is President and CEO of the Longview Chamber of Commerce.

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