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Report: Job programs in good shape

With a deepening recession and climbing unemployment, higher education will play an increasingly bigger role in retraining workers and in preparing a new workforce for 21st century jobs.

An Office of Legislative Auditor report on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system's ability to provide occupational programs received rather good marks when released Monday at a legislative hearing. There were problems, which is understandable, but none are severe and all are solvable.

"Generally, MnSCU colleges respond well to economic conditions and workforce needs, but they should also more routinely assess job prospects for their occupational program graduates," the legislative auditor's report states.

An important function for MnSCU institutions that provide occupational training -- mostly two-year schools such as Northwest Technical College -- is to assess what skills are needed for training and to work with graduates to place them in jobs. Both ends need work, the report offers.

"Colleges rely heavily on program advisory committees to identify employer needs, but not all committees work effectively," according to the report. Such committees consist of employers, students and faculty, with their chief duty offering guidance on program design and operation. But they often meet too infrequently and don't work up to their potential. Some committees could have a better balance of members, more employers or other professionals.

"Colleges should provide better oversight of program advisory committees. They should also improve those that are not fulfilling supply and demand for workers, and college policies should require it," recommends the legislative auditor.

At the other end, the report notes that MnSCU has no centralized oversight of information from colleges on career exploration and job opportunities, and there are gaps in student information on job prospects and related topics. Not enough is being done about getting job prospect information to all students who may need it, students say.

It also noted that in surveys colleges take of graduates one year after graduation about their job status, the 2004-06 surveys showed nine colleges with lower-than-expected rates of related employment. In 2007, the Chancellor's Office strengthened requirements for approving new programs, in part to require quantifying job prospects.

Other problems were cited, such as colleges facing limitations in trying to meet economic and workforce needs because they can't open a new program without closing an existing one.

But overall, MnSCU got good marks for its efforts to prepare Minnesota workers. Money is always an issue, and it was good to note Tuesday that Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in his revised budget, at least upped his higher ed budget to the existing biennium budget. -- Bemidji Pioneer