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Community colleges customize offerings for local workforce

Over the past 10 years, David Legg has struggled to fill lower-level lab positions in the quality assurance division of Charm Sciences in Lawrence.

Candidates with a four-year degree tend to get bored in the position, while others do not have any training at all, said Legg, vice president of quality assurance at Charm, which makes food-safety, water-quality, and environmental diagnostics equipment.

But after he worked with Northern Essex Community College on a training program, students are now emerging with the proper skills to fill those jobs.

“It’s been very successful,’’ Legg said. “We’ve been very happy with the candidates we’ve hired.’’

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Whether it is Massachusetts Bay Community College teaming up with Genzyme Corp. on life sciences, or Massasoit Community College starting a new veterinary technician program, schools across Greater Boston are retooling their academic and workforce training programs to better meet the needs of employers.

And the demand is there, especially in fields such as life sciences, health care, and information technology.

In a 2013 survey by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, 69 percent of business leaders in the state said they found it difficult to find people with the right skills for the positions they need to fill.

“Community colleges today are being held to a high standard, particularly in their responsiveness to support economic development in their service areas,’’ said Laurie Maker, a spokeswoman for Brockton-based Massasoit Community College.

The state’s 15 community colleges have long worked with employers, but traditionally placed a stronger emphasis on providing classes for students moving on to four-year colleges, according to Richard Freeland, commissioner of higher education in Massachusetts .

After the latest recession, however, then-Governor Deval Patrick called for an emphasis on workforce training for people of all ages.

“There has been a whole new raft of initiatives following up on the governor’s call, and I’m very proud of the work the community colleges have done,’’ Freeland said.

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The effort has been bolstered by an influx of federal funding from the US Department of Labor. The state has received two $20 million grants since 2011, allowing officials to develop the Massachusetts Community Colleges & Workforce Development Transformation Agenda to help students attain degrees, certificates, and industry-recognized credentials in two years or less.

Since 2011, more than 6,000 students have enrolled in 151 programs to help them earn degrees or certificates in six high-need fields: health care, advanced manufacturing, information technology, biotechnology, clean energy, and financial services. The second grant is being used to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degree and certificate programs.

Some initiatives are statewide, Freeland said, but each community college develops programs based on the needs of its region.

South of Boston, Massasoit is preparing for a rising demand for engineers, veterinary assistants, and paramedics.

To the north and west, engineering and cybersecurity are growing fields, said Kathleen Sweeney, dean of health and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at Middlesex Community College in Bedford. The college recently updated its computer-aided design degree to help students transfer into the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s engineering program.

Meanwhile, the life sciences field is exploding west of Boston, said Yves Salomon-Fernandez, vice president for strategic planning, institutional effectiveness, and grants development at MassBay Community College.

The Wellesley-based college is looking to build a new campus in downtown Framingham that would include a new life sciences and technology center. Also, 35 Genzyme employees work as mentors to MassBay students, a relationship that has led to several internships at the biotech company .

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Marjorie Schmidt, 24, of Natick, entered MassBay’s biotechnology program two years ago after transferring from another school. In addition to taking academic classes at MassBay, Schmidt has worked with a mentor at Genzyme, has two internships, and spends hours in a lab getting hands-on experience she never thought she would receive at a community college.

“Most of the people I know don’t start research and get into the nitty-gritty until junior or senior year,’’ Schmidt said. “When I came here I was surprised it was so hands-on. I love it.’’

A key role of the community colleges is also helping companies train existing employees. At Massasoit, Maker said officials have worked with many businesses, including Churchill Linen in Brockton for English language training, and VERC Enterprises in Duxbury for sales and business writing instruction.

George Moriarty, executive director of workforce development and corporate relations at Northern Essex Community College, said many companies across the Merrimack Valley need to upgrade the skills of their existing workforce — often in response to changing technology, increased competition, new products, and the need to streamline their production processes.

Just recently, the college launched a police training academy on its Haverhill campus because local departments were struggling to find academy space for their new recruits. And several food manufacturers in the area have employees with limited English skills who need to learn specific workplace terms.

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“We’re always out there talking to companies,” Moriarty said, “meeting with them, trying to figure out what their needs are, and figure out ways we can do the training and support them.’’

It is not all about adding specialized training, however. Many employers are looking for basic skills such as professional etiquette, critical thinking, and communication, Salomon-Fernandez said.

“Right now nationally, but more importantly in Massachusetts, we are seeing an evolution in the role of community colleges, and being able to offer not just technical training but a comprehensive set of skills — the soft skills,” she said.


Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ yahoo.com.