Montgomery Business Journal

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Earn and Learn Partnerships 

November/December 2013

Mark A. Heinrich is the chancellor of the Alabama Community College System. He recently was interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky.

Montgomery Business Journal: What are your responsibilities as chancellor of the Alabama Community College System?

Heinrich: In essence, I am responsible for the entire system, which means all 26 institutions; about 11,000 employees. We run somewhere in the 200,000 to 250,000 credit and non-credit students.

MBJ: Who are the non-credit students?

Heinrich: We have a lot of continuing-ed (education) and a lot of training programs. When you look at the credit (students) – it’s more like in the 85,000 to 86,000 range. We touch so many different entities.

MBJ: Would you please give me an example?

Heinrich: Yes, one is our training for existing business and industry units. Most of our colleges have TEBI (training for existing business and industry) units. They will go out and will contract with businesses – large, medium and small – and run short-term programs.

MBJ: Whatever those businesses and industries need to hire skilled workers?

Heinrich: We can address virtually anything. If the community college cannot address that need, then the Alabama Technology Network (ATN), a division of the college community system, a group of industry experts that the community colleges can borrow for special projects. If there is a need in their area they can go to ATN and ATN will send in experts in that area to help ensure that we have the highest quality education

MBJ: Do you have an example?

Heinrich: In the general sense, ATN is working with the Chamber on a fairly regular basis and in conjunction with Trenholm Tech. There are ATN units all over the state – little pods.

MBJ: What is the community college system’s annual operating budget?

Heinrich: We’re basically a billion-dollar-a-year business – just under a billion dollars and that is everything.

MBJ: How many community colleges are there?

Heinrich: There are 26 and we have ATN.

MBJ: I read that there are a huge number of facilities in the system.

Heinrich: We have 172 instructional sites. Most of our community colleges will have additional instructional sites in an effort to deliver services as close to the citizens as possible.

MBJ: I was surprised to see the number of freshmen and sophomores attending community colleges. Please elaborate.

Heinrich: We run between 45 and 50 percent of the freshmen and sophomores attending college in this state are at one of our community colleges. We have a large number of college students that begin their careers at one of our community colleges for a variety of reasons and not the least of it is cost.

MBJ: What percent of those students will attend a four-year school?

Heinrich: It varies a little bit, but about 15 percent will go on. Our students when they transfer graduate at a higher rate at the four-year institutions than their native students.

MBJ: Out of dozens and dozens of programs about eight were the most prevalent at the 26 community colleges: welding (20 sites); administrative assistant/secretarial science (24 sites); child development (21 sites); computer and information science (24 sites); cosmetology (20 sites); drafting and design technology (20 sites); emergency medical technology/technicians (21 sites); nursing/LPN (licensed practical nurse) (22 sites); nursing/RN (registered nurse) (20 sites). Please elaborate on the emphasis of these programs.

Heinrich: Many of those programs that you mentioned are market-driven. One of the first things you mentioned was the welding program. We cannot turn out welders quickly enough. I’m talking about good welders. Frankly, the areas with the steepest curve at this point are the allied health. Nurses are in the greatest demand. We talk a lot about manufacturing and that’s critical – there’s no question about it. Welders along the coast are in huge demand and other places in the state, but certainly allied health still has the steepest curve.

MBJ: All of these programs and others that we haven’t discussed yet will have a major impact on developing skilled workers, but how soon will that happen? When will you hear that there are enough welders?

Heinrich: I think what you’re seeing is that we have pockets of that right now. The key and what we’re working very hard at is to take those programs to other community colleges. One of the things that I’m going to say is the system is so under-resourced by anybody’s standards. We have lost virtually almost a third of our state funding over the last three or four years. That sourcing is critically important. There are a number of programs that I think are game-changers.

MBJ: What are those game-changers?

Heinrich: The earn-and-learn approach. I was directly involved in it and that was the Mechatronics program with Mercedes. It was between Mercedes and Shelton State.

MBJ: How did the program work?

Heinrich: When Markus Schaefer first came to town as Mercedes CEO, I was president at Shelton State. I went over and said, ‘How can we help you with your training needs? We want to be responsive to what you need.’ He said, ‘I’ll call you.’ It was three or four months later when he called and said, ‘Will you bring your leadership team over?’ Over the next six, eight or 10 months, we in essence stripped one of our associate degree programs of everything but what was absolutely essential, and with them at the table, we developed a curriculum that specifically met their needs and the first one was Mechatronics. Once it was in place, they were certainly very generous in the way they approached it, as were we – we both had skin in the game. They (Mercedes) were part of the screening process. They also gave scholarships to a percentage of the students.  They guarantee the top tier of students jobs when they graduate. The first day the students start in class, they start working at the factory at $14.50 an hour.

MBJ: That’s twice the minimum wage.

Heinrich: It is great money for a student and many of our students are a bit older. The average age of our students is 25.4 years and is down from about 27 years of age.

MBJ: That Mechatronics program sounds like a game-changer.

Heinrich: That’s the earn-and-learn piece. What’s happening is one complements the other. It’s a really positive model. When they (students) finish up they are in pretty significant demand. These jobs are basically industrial maintenance positions that pay very, very well – $60,000 to $70,000.

MBJ: Is this a model that could become fairly widespread?

Heinrich: We are planting that in other areas already.

MBJ: Do you have a similar program in Montgomery?

Heinrich: We do not have anything in Montgomery, but we’re working on one right now in North Alabama at Drake (J.F. State Technical College). There are modifications of that approach at a number of our community colleges, where businesses and industries are already working with them.

MBJ: Please talk about dual enrollment. You’ve said that you would like to see dual enrollment available to all students in the state and how that would change “work force development forever” in the state.

Heinrich: I think it’s a game-changer for the State of Alabama and I’ve seen it happen in some other states. When you can make dual enrollment available at every high school in the state and make it available for nothing because many of rural high schools and rural students can’t afford it – it is so beneficial. We have about nine or 10 percent of our high school students that are currently in dual enrollment (enrolled in high school and at a community college). When you go across the state and talk to business and industry and educational professionals – K-12 folks – you usually hear that 40 to 50 percent would like to be able to participate if dollars were available. There is a real interest.

MBJ: Could businesses and industries step forward and fund the program because those students are their future employees?

Heinrich: Yes. What I would like to do … we’re going to ask for some state funds and then go to the private sector so it would be this public-private partnership. It’s like that Mercedes model. I like it when everybody has skin in the game. What happens is that students are taking college-level courses while they are taking high school courses. We have a number of individuals each year that when they graduate from high school they graduate with their two-year degree. So at 18, they are finished with their community college degree.

MBJ: Don’t some of the students end up with certificates?

Heinrich: They do. As soon as they walk off the stage, they are employable and I think that really is the point. As the high schools and community colleges work closer and closer together – we really have a good working relationship. It’s a game-changer because all of a sudden we have a whole other group of workers that can go right into the marketplace. One of the areas where this is particularly important (is in) some of our rural areas. We know – we are absolutely convinced – that business and industry would land in our rural areas if there was some assurance there was a work force there. We have the resources of the men and women who are willing – we are just not providing and delivering the training. If the community colleges do that through the high schools, then all of a sudden you have individuals in their junior and senior years that are also involved pretty intently in college-level courses. When they leave, they have a certificate – industry recognized training necessary for them to go to work.

MBJ: Is this something that can be implemented in the next five years?

Heinrich: I think it’s quicker than that because the dual enrollment structure is in place right now. Our biggest hold-back is the finances, but the mechanism – the vehicle – is there. It would just be a matter of upping from nine or 10 percent to easily get to 25 percent pretty quickly if funds were available.

MBJ: How much would that cost?

Heinrich: To increase dual enrollment 25 percent in this state would cost about $10 million. We could go from 10 percent to 35 percent with an extra $10 million. That is one of my passions by the way – dual enrollment. It is huge in terms of economic and work force development.

MBJ: On the agency’s website it states: “… will unite the system in a common goal to improve the state’s economy by providing a well-educated and highly-skilled workforce.” How do you unite all of these facilities into a common goal?

Heinrich: Gov. (Robert) Bentley put together the College and Career Ready Task Force. This task force is actually doing the work that needs to get done and the reason is you’ve got K-12 at the table; you have the two-year system at the table; you have the four-year system at the table; you have state government at the table; you have business and industry at the table. The governor has basically said that ‘we’re going to get this done.’ He has a series of sub-committees working right now with a pretty tight timeline. He is interested in a specific plan coming out of that to address exactly what you’re talking about: to make sure all these entities are working together. I’ve got to tell you that it’s working. I’m a member of that. I chair the soft skills task force. That is a critical piece. If you look at the literature out there you realize that about 85 percent of the people who lose jobs or fail to secure jobs – it’s because of those soft skills and 15 percent because of the hard skills or technical skills.

MBJ: When all these various entities get on the same page, what are we looking at in terms of employment and economic development?

Heinrich: It becomes kind of one-stop shopping for business and industry. I think it’s fairly easy right now, but it will become even easier for business and industry to basically go to the buffet bar of resources; see what’s there and pick and choose what they need most, and of course, work force is a big part of that. This kind of organization where everybody is working together just allows us to be so much more responsive – getting out of the silos. One of the things that I’m seeing happening and I believe it will continue is that people are beginning to recognize that if everyone works together and everybody is at the same table, there actually is more for everyone. The governor has done a great job leading the way and communicating and actually demonstrating through this task force that that’s what is going to happen.

MBJ: I saw an economic impact report that the Alabama Community College System averaged $1.3 billion for a three-year fiscal period as well as nearly 17,000 full-time jobs and a combined payroll of nearly $600 million. Please elaborate.

Heinrich: Most of the communities where our community colleges reside – we’re the biggest employer. That in itself has a huge impact on each of those communities. I think another piece that’s on their (website) and it’s in all of our literature, and this was done by an outside firm: Every dollar the state invests in the community college system returns $6. Not only are we a great employer and contribute to those communities in a lot of ways, we can demonstrate that this 6-to-1 return is pretty consistent and in some communities is much larger than that. It’s 12-to-1 depending on the circumstances.

MBJ: In the more rural areas?

Heinrich: Absolutely. I think the piece that you mentioned – that’s important, that often we don’t focus on the fact that we employ a lot of people. We are the community’s college.

MBJ: I read where you talked about being “committed to listening to business and industry.” Isn’t that the bottom line of being responsive to the needs of the employers and provide them with the workers they need?

Heinrich: The trick for us is making sure we are listening and hearing what business and industry (say) and then translating that into the curriculum or programming that specifically meets their needs. The real key is that it is ongoing. It never ends. There is this constant flow of information back and forth. This is not a one-time deal. This is how we are staying in touch with them all the time. Most of our campuses have a host of advisory committees from various businesses and industries in the area that are feeding information back to them. Some do this better than others. This is a re-emphasis on our part to make sure that we’re listening because these are the people we are serving. I think business and industry are beginning to understand that we really do want to hear from them. I think sometimes that the academic world tends to be a little removed.

MBJ: Aren’t business and industry listening more and more to agencies such as the community college system because that’s where many of their workers come from?

Heinrich: They absolutely do and they are really good to work with. Yes, they are coming to us. I think we are being increasingly responsive. We’re still not there yet – we are not where we need to be in terms of responding fully to business and industry, but we are working on that and we will get there.

MBJ: I read where the Alabama Community College System has job-training partnerships with about 1,000 companies. That’s impressive.

Heinrich: We work with between 1,000 and 1,200 companies right now. The vast majority of employers in Alabama are the small businesses in the 25 to 50 range.

MBJ: All the facts and figures about the community college system are eye-opening. I just don’t think people realize how large the system is and its impact.

Heinrich: They see the community college system as this little school that’s in their small community and that’s it. I don’t think they recognize the tentacles. The genius of those who set up the community college system … among other things is having some sort of an instructional site within fairly easy access of every Alabama resident. And they accomplished it. At the end of the day, it really does what it was initially intended to do.

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    TOTAL 2012-2013 ENROLLMENT

    12,000 plus




    12.9 million


    $111 per semester hour





    *Denotes unduplicated count

    Sources: Alabama Community College System and Department of Postsecondary Education



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