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Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

Schools, Firms Team Up to Fill Worker Gap


When Pacific Coast National Bank decided it wanted to explore a new potential market in North County, it turned to an unlikely marketing research group: students. The students were part of Cal State San Marcos’ business administration school, working on a senior project.

The San Clemente-based bank’s assignment was to assess the market for homeowners associations. The four seniors spent two months last fall researching potential client needs, analyzing competition, examining costs and revenue, and recommending an action plan. Their conclusion: do not go forward.

The bank, with assets of $31 million and offices in Encinitas and San Clemente, was surprised by the outcome. But it listened.

“They showed us it was not the right thing for us as a small bank,” said Michael Hahn, the president and chief operating officer. “Even though it was a negative outcome, it turned out to be positive, because we didn’t have to spend a lot of time and resources to find that out later.”

The project was part of the Senior Experience program offered by Cal State San Marcos, which sends students into businesses, while training them for the real world. It’s kind of like “The Apprentice” TV show in action.

Increasingly, educational institutions in North County are creating such programs to train students, while serving the business community. Faced with a shortage of skilled workers due to high living costs, businesses and educational institutions are partnering to train students who can manage, run and develop the area’s growing information and service-based companies.

“The educational institutions all play a significant role in the development of the inland region,” said Gary Powers, the president and chief executive officer of the San Diego North Chamber of Commerce, which has 1,100 members. Businesses will not be able to train the work force to meet the needs of the future, he says. “We need their cooperation, working with businesses and corporations to meet this need.”

Filling A Need

North County educational institutions say they are tailoring their programs to suit the region’s business landscape: the need for skilled workers, a shift toward knowledge-based businesses, a mushrooming of small and medium-size companies, or SMEs, and more entrepreneurs. They are also gearing up for anticipated growth.

Cal State San Marcos opened a $28 million business administration building in January, and it has partnered with the San Diego North Chamber of Commerce and leading CEOs on several joint programs. Palomar College, also in San Marcos, is opening two more satellite campuses in Fallbrook and Poway this fall, and it plans to build a new business administration facility by 2011. National University, a private nonprofit school, is working with the San Diego North Economic Development Council to create internships for business students. It has also started on-site programs with the companies themselves, including an on-site training program for nurses. The University of Phoenix, which serves working adults, is beefing up its technology and management training programs.

The biggest challenge that North County businesses face: a shortage of skilled workers. Business leaders say they have difficulty attracting talent from other parts of the country because of high housing and living costs. Even workers in outlying counties think twice about working in the area due to bad traffic, long commuting hours, and high gas costs, says the chamber’s Powers. As a result, jobs can go unfilled for months. The Escondido-based Palomar Pomerado Hospital Foundation has more than 200 job openings; Northrop Grumman, a Los Angeles-based defense contractor with San Diego offices, has more than 100 openings in San Diego alone.

Producing Local Talent

One solution, say business and education leaders, is to grow local talent. These workers already live here and want to stay. Many businesses also prefer such homegrown workers, because they understand local conditions. Dennis Guseman, dean of the College of Business Administration at Cal State San Marcos, says that local students are needed to fill this gap. Indeed, the vast majority , 90 percent , of the school’s graduates remain in the area. “Our niche is geographic,” he said.

North County’s educational institutions are also gearing their programs to fit the needs of the area’s many knowledge-based companies. As manufacturing companies moved overseas, the region’s businesses are now are focused on information and service industries, such as technology, biotech, software, financial services, medical services, extreme sports, resort management and tourism. With this shift, businesses need workers with more specialized knowledge, particularly technology. While companies could previously train workers by bringing them up through the ranks, they now need to outsource that training, due to the need for specialized knowledge, Powers said.

Palomar College is developing a new insurance training program to serve that industry. In the past, insurance companies trained people in-house. But as business has become more complex and knowledge more specialized, insurance companies are now outsourcing their training to community colleges, explains David Forsyth, the chairman of the Business Department at Palomar College. This trend is happening across many industries, he says. “All business is becoming more complex.”

Helping Smaller Firms

North County’s businesses also tend to be small and medium size , with revenues of less than $20 million. SMEs now comprise a whopping 80 percent of businesses in North County. This business profile is likely to continue into the future, says Pacific Coast National Bank’s Hahn. Local businesses that grow beyond that size are likely to be acquired by larger companies based in other cities, he says. The limited amount of real estate in North County also encourages companies to stay small and lean.

Small businesses need well-rounded employees , those capable of handling management, accounting, sales and other aspects of running a business. As a result, schools are focused on training students with a range of skills. Cal State San Marcos requires its students to learn not only technical skills, but also management and teamwork.

This trend means that adult workers also need to constantly upgrade their skills, as workers change careers or companies several times during their lives. “The days of people staying in one job all their lives is gone,” said Palomar’s Forsyth. “We expect that people will need ongoing training every five to seven years to keep up with their job responsibilities.”

Stay-At-Home Workers

North County’s bad traffic also means a trend toward more virtual offices, says Forsyth. Many employees prefer to work from home to avoid traffic. With more single-parent households, the need for workers to stay close to home is also growing. And SME companies that do not want to spend more on office space like employees who can work from home. Schools, therefore, need to train students in using this technology, says Forsyth.

North County’s growing number of entrepreneurs are also shaping business education curriculum. Many midcareer professionals who lost their jobs due to downsizing in the last decade have started their own businesses, while young entrepreneurs are also striking out on their own. Cal State San Marcos expects the number of its students who become entrepreneurs to grow from 10 percent of graduates now, to 33 percent in the next 10 years.

Ryan Thomas is one success story of this joint effort between local business and education. Thomas, 28, is the co-founder and president of Carlsbad-based Find Your Customers, Inc., which had revenue of $1 million in 2005, its first year of operation. He attributes his company’s success to the hands-on education he received at Cal State San Marcos. The 1-year-old Internet business generates leads for debt consolidation businesses.

Thomas says he got the idea for his business while working in the school’s Senior Experience program. The project was with an Internet company, generating leads for a landscape business. “The Senior Experience really opened my eyes to the opportunities in the marketplace,” said Thomas. “That bridged the gap between what I learned in books and how to apply that in the real world.”

Thomas, who grew up in Rancho Bernardo, at one point planned to base the company in Boulder, Colo. But he decided that there was enough talent in North County to justify staying here.

Now, Thomas is hiring other graduates , recruiting from his alma mater. He and his partner have also bought a 1,500-square-foot suite in a Carlsbad building to house the operation. The company, which has five full-time employees, plans to hire two or three more this year.

For business leaders such as Pacific Coast National’s Hahn, partnerships with higher education institutions mean good business overall. “It’s essential for the educational institutions to interact with businesses to create real win-win situations,” he said.

Helen Chang is a freelance writer living in San Diego.


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