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Letter to business leaders: Step in on PCC's behalf

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What the Devil won't tell you

Letter to business leaders: Step in on PCC's behalf

Embattled community college needs you and you need it

  • Kynn Bartlett/Wikimedia

Dear Tucson business leaders:

I'm going to ask you to invest in Pima Community College and take Gov. Doug Ducey at his word as a champion of education. It may seem like I'm asking you to go long on MySpace and follow the business acumen of Bernie Sanders but hear me out.

PCC is facing an enrollment drop and can't quite get back into good standing with the accreditation people who have oversight of community colleges. Both these news stories broke in recent days. The instinct is to retreat and downsize. It's exactly the wrong move and it's up to business leaders to do something about it.

Look at it this way. Business has a chance to prove that it doesn't need to pay silly taxes to have a thriving community college system. It can take its own initiative and prove the state treasury irrelevant. This is your shot.

You need to take a meeting and start brainstorming about rebranding. This is something Tucson has proven great at over the years. Maybe our local institutions move about as fast as kelp rolling across the seafloor but we are the re-visioning capital of the world. So arrange the folding tables in a horseshoe, set out the pastries and start thinking about how to reinvigorate a floundering college.

One of the most honest employers in America today is AT&T, trying to pivot from Ma Bell days of phone splicers into an information business full of computer coders. The company told employees to either get skills A through J or face a very limited future. Management would give employees up to $8,000 a year to cover those costs but all job training must be done on the employee's time.

Sure, maybe that means employees now are in school part-time and working full time just to maintain a career path. But the company has skin in the game.

A local example of what we're looking at is Pima's Aviation Technology program, which has flourished with a big assist from the aeronautics industry.

Business, big business at that, gets a certain rap. They just want what we want: low taxes, good schools, safe streets, paved streets, cheap flights in and out of a fast airport and a highly educated work force. They just want someone else to pay for it all or they want to know that the investment will pay quick dividends. Emphasis on quick.

Pima's literary My Lai

Pima hardly looks like a great investment. Consider it like this, business folks. It's an under-performing company making a product that fits your mission statement and therefor ripe.

Pima has just received word that it must wait until at least Sept. 1 for a chance to get off double-secret probation and have its full accreditation restored. It's been a great bureaucratic salvo across PCC's bow. The national accreditation board, the Higher Learning Commission, placed Pima on probation in 2013 and upgraded the college to “On Notice” last February.

This week, the commission refused to confer full "good standing" on Pima. They hit five benchmarks, made good progress on four but failed to hire a compliance officer. That must be fixed before the community college gets out of dutch with the muckety-mucks.

The accreditation team reported 32 pages that read like this:

The team finds the College has made significant progress meeting 5 of the areas of focus; 4 areas require further organizational attention; 1 area of focus requires further organizational attention and HLC follow-up; and 1 area of focus warrants (continued) HLC sanction.While there is significant evidence documentng [sic] the College's progress meeting the the [sic] requirements for areas of focus A2, A8, A10, and A11, more work needs to be completed to assure the sustainability of the changes. The team recommends the College submit an interim report embedded in the materials required for the evaluation visit scheduled during 2018-2019.

OK team, that's not writing. It's a war crime.

The passage is a useful onomatopoeia. If the college was as screwed up as the writing describing it reads, no wonder its taking a while to unscrew. (I'm starting to write like them, now. Wonderful).

The downsizing plan reflects diminished enrollment, which may very well be the product of a better economy. During the recession, county residents sought the least judged form of unemployment (going to school) to retool after losing a job for more skills in the changing economy.

Now that the economy is starting to hum, would-be students are happy in their work.

Understand what this means. When the economy tanks again, enrollment would then increase at the very time tax revenues dwindle.

It's a case of the economy and job market operating ideally. Workers seek to retool themselves as they wait out a soft job market without being idle. They are improving their value and the value of the company's that will employ them.

Still, it's a challenge Tucson knows may be coming. How do we keep Pima's capacity up for enrollment spikes when the market isn't providing the bodies?

Pretend Ducey means what he says

Ducey has big ideas for Arizona's workforce. He announced in September an initiative to confer degrees or post-secondary certificates on 60 percent of Arizona's workforce and he got headlines with it.

We can wonder if the goal is to reach his target or publicly tweet a target. I know I do.

Ducey's big efforts on behalf of K-12 education in Arizona has been all Wilbur, no Wildcat. He won a lot of press championing a plan to get Arizona schools, ranked 49th nationally in per-pupil spending, more money by tapping the state land trust. He got a lot of headlines, earned himself a talking point and a 30-second spot for the re-elect. It lifted Arizona not at all. The state still ranks 49th.

Smart politicians know voters often just want to see an effort. So a hashtag can take the place of a policy. Look busy and the boss will think you work hard. Sound? Check. Fury? Check. Signifying nothing? That's up to you, business leaders.

Ducey has so prioritized community colleges that he zeroed them out of the state budget. Arizona again has broken ground on education, after leading the nation in university cuts, and been the first state to just tell the community colleges to bugger off. No other state has thought of full divestment as a strategy to improve the work force. Even a bright red state like Tennessee has launched an effort to give every one of its residents access to a free community college education.

Local taxpayers are taxed out. The community college is right now pinned at the state limit of a $100 million tax levy. Getting more from local taxpayers violates the law. No limit prevents local business from voluntarily opening its checkbook.

Ducey himself projects that a 45 percent increase in the share of Arizonans with post-secondary certification would bring $3.5 billion more a year into the state budget. Better educated workers make more money and improve the economy. Cutting $75 million in state budgets from pre-recession levels that could have leveraged an 42 times return on investment may seem like shoddy business but let's suspend our disbelief.

Inherent in razing higher education budgets has been the idea that the institutions are going to have to get more creative and work with local business leaders to build partnerships.

Now's your chance business community. Ducey's your guy. Show that creativity. This is the chance you wanted to get out from under the jack boot of government. Run with it (the chance, not the boot).

Private sector not ready

One option is to allow for the private sector to pick up the slack in providing continued learning.

That's an idea. Right now massive open on-line courses (MOOCS) are on the march. They are often free and from accredited universities. Anyone can take a course, through Coursera, on Mandarin or a crash course in data science called “A Crash Course in Data Science.” No money needed.

This is stupendously awesome. I want to ditch this column right now and sign up for IBM's course called A Developer's Guide to the Internet so I can be tech savvy. Maybe I want to take accounting analytics through the University of Pennsylvania.

However, no certificate is granted. Also, in general  MOOC students have a 7 to 9 percent retention rate. Maybe that's because some of these courses would require previous classes to help understand the material. Oh, and the lecture is free but the material is not. That ain't an easy haul given runaway textbook prices.

Maybe dropping in on a lecture from Day One isn't the best way to teach a course. Something is missing. Coursea sees a steady drop off in online attendance week after week.

Udacity, a MOOC that sprouted out of Stanford, is offering things called “nano degrees.” These are 9 to 12-month tutorials that get students the information they need but they run $1,800 to $2,400 and financial aid is not available through traditional venues. That's big.

No question that the private sector is looking at some exciting ways to upskill (I thought I made that up on the spot. Turns out no. Not at all. It's common language among HR departments.) workers and disrupt analog habits. So far, though, the free market hasn't figured it out.

Your workers, your pay scales, your problem

I hear you, business community. Why is it your job and not the workforce's personal responsibility?

Two reasons.

1) It's your job market and training costs. The more skills the workers get through dispersing the costs, the better your bottom line.

2) I have a secret for you, business leaders of Tucson. Come here a little closer so no one hears. Ssshshsh.

“You don't pay shit.”

Don't get defensive. I'm not blaming you. It's not evil. You didn't start it. God knows Tucsonans don't think they are worth that much, or they would demand more. It must be the sun. I think UV rays zap that part of the brain that governs the counter offer.

Tucson's per capita income ranks 169th among metro areas. Only Fresno, New Orleans and San Juan, Puerto Rico, pay less among major metro areas.

It's business. I get it. But every business decision comes with a cost.

When you pay workers based on as little as you can justify before a forgiving God, your employees don't have this thing called “money.” Possessing “money” is very helpful in making people 100 percent self-sufficient. Those for-profit providers of coursework charge based on what people can afford in other cities, where they makek “more money” can afford.

The market sets the price beyond what you, dear sirs and madame, pay.

When Sacramento worker realizes the cost of a course in UpLearning is $2,400, they say “well okay.” Tucson worker looks at their account balance, tapped out grandparents and maxed out credit cards. Then they say “uuuuuhhh.”

I smell vision statement!

You don't want to pay them. You don't want to pay taxes. You know there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Ducey dropped this pearl, declaring two-thirds of future jobs will require a degree or advanced certificate. Today, just 42 percent of the work force has those credentials. We have a big skills gap. So you have a skills gap.

So business leaders need better-trained workers. The state won't pay for them. Community college district is are forbidden to pay more. Asking workers to pay their own way is like getting AB negative from basalt. Every bit of the perpetual normal has been manifest in Southern Arizona for the glory of business.

Now the opportunity (problem is such a loaded term) is yours. Your obvious and necessary partner in bridging the skills gap finds itself with a national accreditation board holding an academic Glock to its head. Merry Christmas.

I have faith though. Asking for real concrete solutions immediate is impatient and annoying. I'm not being a high-minded elitist. I'm just saying business needs to take a meeting. On this I have no doubt: Better than anyone, Tucson leaders can brainstorm integrated methodologies to foster certain synergies and achieve data-driven win-wins by aggregating outside-the-box thinking and repurposing infrastructures for improved scalability that deliver better bang for the buck.

I smell vision statement! Wouldn't take much to fit the term "digital" in there somewhere. Eh? Eh? "Digital" got your attention, didn't it?

We're fantastic at those meetings. Go ahead and punt – punt repeatedly but in the words of Hank Shram: “Keep matriculating the ball down the field.”

It's your business now and it's smart business.


Your humble columnist.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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