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Michele Bresso

We asked Michele Bresso, associate vice chancellor of governmental and external relations for the Kern Community College District, to share insights about the district and its colleges. Bresso took on her new role, which is also a new position for the district, on Aug. 1.

Bresso notes that KCCD covers nearly 25,000 square miles in parts of five counties: Kern, Tulare, Inyo, Mono and San Bernardino. The district serves 44,000 students in three colleges: Bakersfield College, Porterville College and Cerro Coso Community College in Ridgecrest.

Q: Kern County has sort of a Catch-22 in that the kinds of employers who hire highly paid white-collar professionals are reluctant to come here, lamenting our relative lack of people with college degrees. Meanwhile, our college grads insist there are no jobs here and often leave the market to find work. What can be done about that?

A: One reason businesses with white-collar professionals move operations to a new locale is the availability of a trained workforce. KCCD colleges are training that workforce. For example, KCCD's Clean Energy Center provides training for power and energy utility workers and solar and wind energy technicians. These programs at our district office and at Porterville College, Bakersfield College's Delano Center, and at Cerro Coso Community College, lead to valuable work experience, paid internships and jobs in many industries, some of which are new to our area. Programs like the training at our Clean Energy Center motivate industries to consider Kern County for development and expansion.

While some college grads do leave our area, many return after they've gained work and life experience. Others, like myself, are not Kern County natives but have made a life in this great community. I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area, but I have lived in Bakersfield for more than 30 years. This community is welcoming, vibrant and affording of opportunity. Our community colleges are part of that opportunity to learn and grow in this community.

Q: How closely do business leaders work with local colleges to identify skill and education voids in the workforce that our colleges could address?

A: Our employees partner with industry representatives on advisory councils to ensure that the courses we teach are applicable to workforce needs. Career and technical education programs--engineering, agriculture, nursing, welding, business, fire technology, emergency medical technician training and the like--have strong ties to their respective industries to ensure that the skills taught in our classes meet the specific needs of local employers. These industry advisors provide direct, pertinent feedback on needed skill sets, industry-specific workforce trends, and employment demands.

Q: What is KCCD doing to forge closer relationships with local business leaders who aren't currently engaged in higher education?

A: KCCD partners with community organizations like the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce and Kern Economic Development Corp., working closely with business leaders to address our community's workforce needs. At the individual level, our chancellor, college presidents and other district leaders participate on boards and in local service organizations where we connect with business leaders. Faculty interact with industry leaders through advisory councils. Other partnerships are forged through economic and workforce grants. We are always seeking ways to partner with our local businesses, and we welcome ideas for collaboration!

Q: There are a ton of agencies and institutions right now trying to convince Sacramento not to slash their funding. How do you make your voice heard amid all that noise?

A: At one time, the community colleges in our state worked on their own behalf when it came to talking about issues like funding and enrollment concerns. Today, California's 112 community colleges work together through the State Chancellor's Office. As a large body, our voice can be heard through the din so that we can affect legislative change to benefit our students. Additionally, we are working collaboratively with the California State University, the University of California and the K-12 systems to impress upon our legislators the economic value -- personally and in our community -- of an educated citizenry. My position in governmental relations, which is new in our district, is focused specifically on making our voice heard by our legislators. This is being accomplished through building relationships with our state and national legislators and their staff members. Partnering with the business community to present a chorus of collaborative voices is another KCCD strategy to be heard in Sacramento and beyond.

Q: What is your graduation rate and how satisfied are you with it?

A: In 2010, our three colleges awarded associate's degrees or certificates to more than 2,300 students. Not every student arrives at the college with a goal to graduate, however. Some want to complete general education courses and transfer to finish a bachelor's degree. Others take only a few courses to fulfill workplace requirements. Of those KCCD students who intend to complete a degree, certificate or plan to transfer to a four-year college or university, 51 percent achieve this goal within six years. That compares to a rate of 49 percent for a cohort of comparable community colleges that includes Antelope Valley College and Fresno City College. Why the low completion figures around our state? One obstacle to students' success is that more than 80 percent of our students enter KCCD colleges with skills below college level. For these students, the path to their education goal is longer and more trying. Additionally, many of our students work part or full time while juggling family responsibilities. This competes with a student's ability to complete courses successfully. It is KCCD's priority to help students complete an associate's degree, certificate, or to transfer to complete a bachelor's degree. As a result, we are following the work of the California Taskforce on Student Success and implementing best practices to assist these students. Are we satisfied with the current completion rate? No. We won't be satisfied until every student who comes to us meets or exceeds his or her educational goal.

Q: In a recession there are two competing trends. On the one hand, more people go to school when they can't find jobs. On the other hand, some people who can't afford tuition either don't enroll or drop out. What's been the net effect of the economic downturn on enrollment?

A: In an economic downturn, we always see a surge in enrollment. Now, with this surge in demand and fewer class sections being offered due to state budget cuts, not every student who wants to attend our community colleges will find room. More than 16,500 seats in courses are being sought by waitlisted students for classes that begin in less than two weeks. At Bakersfield College, for example, 77 percent of its class sections have students waiting to get in.