An Interview between Job Quality Fellow Walt Tobin (President, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College) and Maureen Conway (Vice President, The Aspen Institute; Executive Director, Economic Opportunities Program)
Walt Tobin recently reached a full decade in serving as President of Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College (OCtech). OCtech is a two-year college, and one of 16 in the South Carolina Technical College system. Tobin notes that “we consider ourselves the first step on the road to the American Dream. We are in a rural area straddling the I-26 corridor between Columbia to the North and Charleston to the southeast.” OCtech serves predominately African American and low-income students. The school largely focuses on equipping students for careers in advanced manufacturing and health care, and also offers programs in public service, business criminal justice, and early care and education. Including part-time faculty and staff, OCtech employs about 250.
We recently sat down for a conversation with Walt Tobin, who is also an Aspen Institute EOP Job Quality Fellow, to discuss the college’s efforts to boost job quality and opportunities – particularly for frontline employees.
Maureen Conway: Like many community and technical colleges, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College is a significant employer in your region in addition to being an important educational institution. In addition to helping your students prepare for and connect to jobs and careers, how have you been thinking about your role as an employer? How can OCtech improve the quality of jobs that you offer?
Walt Tobin: We just adopted a new strategic plan with only two goals that we think are the most important in our institution and community. The first goal is to increase the number of graduates by 20% compared to this current year. Employers are looking for graduates with high levels of technical skill to fill the high-wage, high-demand jobs in manufacturing and health care. We want to provide the quantity and quality of graduates that employers need in our area. The second goal is to improve job quality within, increase wages, and ramp up our payroll costs by $200,000 annually, each year over the next two years.
These wage improvements are focused on custodial staff. Going into this 2021-22 new academic year, we will transition to around $12.50 an hour. I’m also committed to ultimately get those staff to $13 an hour. (Note: According to Indeed, custodians are paid an average $11.58/hour across South Carolina. These workers at OCtech also receive state employee benefits such as health insurance, retirement contribution, and paid time off.) We will also provide our maintenance staff with apprenticeship opportunities. That will help OCtech by cutting vendors costs as our staff does that work. I’d much rather have our spending go to employees. At the same time, our maintenance staff will garner higher skills and a portable, recognized credential. Even if they decide that OCtech is not the right place for them, they can take the skills that they’ve learned with us and translate that into another job. OCtech has already provided training programs to some employees of Dominion Energy, and the college’s youth apprenticeship program is inclusive of the credit-based advanced manufacturing programs. I’m pleased to see us extend similar options to some of our own staff. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate that we believe in the concept to external audiences like other employers and internally to show that we’re investing in own employees.
We must and we have committed to these employees both in increasing wage rates but also professional development opportunities. It is win-win – benefiting OCtech and making them more marketable.
Tobin Defines Job Quality
What skills will the apprenticeship program develop? What are the options for people who participate?
OCtech is partnering with the National Center for Construction and Education Research, a nationally recognized provider of building trades credentials. Our focus is heavy on maintenance. It spans electrical training, mechanical training, instrumentation, soft skills, math, and communication skills. They can also complete the OSHA 10 certification in workplace safety and health. We’re adopting a comprehensive, systems-based approach to providing these folks a pathway to NCCER journeyman’s credential once they’ve passed the exam for all levels.
I’m curious. Now that you’ve made this commitment, how are people responding?
We are just now finding out as we presented the options and launched the program. It is a commitment that I’ve made and I’m sticking by it. And I told them, regardless of what the state budget offers, we will build in that payroll costs to support our employees. So far, we’ve had a good response. I’ll get a “thank you” as I walk the campus and a few emails too.
Quite frankly, I think it’s come at the right time. With employers struggling to find good workers, we had gone down this road even before a shortage of good workers was a thing. I see that is has helped us attract good potential employees and keep the good ones that we’ve got on staff.
How has your experience looking at your own workforce and trying to find opportunities to improve job quality internally influenced your conversations with the employers with whom you’re trying to place students? Does it impact your messages about what you expect of them?
The message is, if you want us to provide the quantity and quality of the workforce that you need for your business to be successful, we need your support. And as we get better and grow and do more, there’s a direct benefit to you, as an organization or a business, in terms of your workforce and how you can get the level of skill that you need to increase the profit – but also increase the efficiency – of your business. I think folks understand that, right? It’s a transactional relationship, and I’m okay with that.
The other good news is that economic development prospect activity has started to pick up. That’s in the state overall, but also in this region, sitting in between manufacturers like Boeing and Mercedes-Benz, Sprinter Van, Volvo and some larger companies in Columbia. These companies are beginning to move a little bit closer to Orangeburg because there’s less competition for workers here. As they come this way, it increases competition and, in turn, requires companies that are here to think about different ways of doing business and how they can get a leg up in attracting and retaining a quality workforce in Orangeburg and Calhoun County.
Across the country, there’s a heightened focus on racial equity and justice issues. How’s that unfolding in your area? Does it intersect with this work around job quality?
I had operated for a long time under the philosophy that, if you do the right things for all students, then minority achievement will increase at the same level. We have made a commitment, however, to look at data about the success of our minority students. That philosophy has not worked for them. So last year, I assembled academic deans and directors. OCtech has a plan to create a culture of inclusive excellence here on campus. That plan is focused on increasing the outcomes of our minority students, particularly African American, and increasing the number of minorities in the faculty ranks.
OCtech has a plan to create a culture of inclusive excellence here on campus. That plan is focused on increasing the outcomes of our minority students, particularly African American, and increasing the number of minorities in the faculty ranks.
We are in the early stages, but I think when an initiative like that comes from the top, it sends the right message to the campus – and quite frankly, to the community – that it’s important. For example, OCtech has an associate degree nursing program recognized as one of the best in the Southeast in terms of the ability for those graduates to pass the licensure exam. But the program did not mirror our community. Sixty-five percent of Orangeburg County residents are [from] minority [groups]. Minorities made up about half the students at the start. But probably 15% would graduate. We found, particularly with our minority students, that there were competing interests that limited their ability to complete the program. It’s essentially a full-time job for two years and they had families. They had to work and just had life circumstances. We’ve created some flexible options that allows them to take a portion of the course online and then come to campus on nights and weekends to be able to do the lecture and the lab portion of the coursework. We’ve significantly increased the number of our minority graduates. In 2020, more than half of those graduates were minority students. We understand it’s an issue. We had some success at a programmatic level. Now OCtech has to figure out how to expand that as a college-wide initiative.
From that experience, and from your experience looking at improving job quality within your institution, what are some lessons you might want to share with your colleagues in higher education?
Well, I think that first, that the vision has to be set by the leadership. The second thing is we as higher ed institutions need to set the example. I was going out telling businesses that they needed to start apprenticeships, and when I looked internally, I didn’t have one at my own organization. So, I think setting the example really sends the right message to prospective partners in this work. And third, I think that you’ve got to demonstrate the “why.” You’re making a long-term commitment to being able to grow the pipeline of good workers that you want coming into your organization.
I think it sends the right message to employers that OCtech is truly committed to the community and to growing employees. Employers may already have employees onboard that that they can skill up as opposed to bringing folks in off the street. It is a good business decision to invest internally. Ultimately, I think the return on that investment will be exponential.
OCtech’s experience illustrates how improving job quality can benefit both the employer and the workers. Other examples in this series can be found on our website. Practical tools for boosting job quality are also available from EOP’s Job Quality Tools Library.
Tweet In an interview with @conway_maureen of @AspenWorkforce, @OCtechEdu President @Tobinwa describes his college’s efforts to boost #jobquality and opportunities – particularly for frontline employees.
Tweet Under the leadership of President @Tobinwa, @OCtechEdu is boosting wages for custodial staff and offering #apprenticeships to maintenance staff. Read more about his college’s #jobquality efforts.
Tweet “We as #highered institutions need to set the example. I was going out telling businesses that they needed to start #apprenticeships, and when I looked internally, I didn’t have one at my own organization.” @OCtechEdu President @Tobinwa
Tweet “Employers may already have employees onboard that that they can skill up as opposed to bringing folks in off the street. It is a good business decision to invest internally.” @OCtechEdu President @Tobinwa
We are grateful to Prudential Financial for its support of this blog series and to the Economic Opportunities Program’s work to build a job quality field of practice.
The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.