Working to fill the skills gap

A conversation with Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College.

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Mark Mitsui has a lot of policy experience working out what kind of skills employers are looking for in college graduates.

Before becoming president of Portland Community College this fall, he worked at the U.S. Department of Education where he helped create a framework of “employability skills” that businesses say are necessary for workers to be successful at their jobs.

Mitsui wants to bring that experience of working on federal workforce education programs to Portland where he hopes to build partnerships with the business sector.

“We would like to know what are the skills that employers are looking for both in terms of employability skills as we as technical knowledge. Our institution can then translate that into learning outcomes and curriculum,” said Mitsui.

The new college president’s eagerness to engage with businesses comes as concerns grow that today’s graduates lack basic skills necessary to function in the workplace.

Several sectors, such as advanced manufacturing and energy, face a glut of skilled labor as baby boomers retire and graduates lack basic knowledge of how to do these jobs.

Mitsui has spent most of his career in higher education and has held various teaching and administrative posts, including president of North Seattle College. For the past three years, he was deputy assistant secretary for community colleges in the Obama administration.

Mitsui is a native of the Pacific Northwest, having grown up in Seattle, Washington. His grandparents immigrated from Japan to the Seattle in the early 20th century. Asian-American immigrants at the time faced discrimination and were barred from becoming U.S. citizens and from owning land.Unknown 1

During the Second World War the U.S. government forcibly sent his relatives to internment camps. Despite this, Mitsui’s father volunteered for the U.S. Army, serving in counterintelligence. After the war, he attended college on the G.I. Bill, where he met Mitsui’s mother. 

His family’s past experience “forever underscored for me the transformative power of both education and perseverance,” he said in an earlier interview with the college.  

Mitsui takes over from previous Portland Community College president Jeremy Brown, who split with the board of directors and left in May 2015.

The new appointment comes at a time of expansion in workforce training for the college. It is spearheading a new workforce training facility that will be part of the future Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center in Scappoose. The training center will offer business-sponsored apprenticeships in advanced manufacturing.

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The college is still in discussions with businesses about sponsoring apprentices at the facility, said Mitsui. “There are major partners in the initiative that are looking at the model,” he said.

As part of his engagement with the business sector, the new president said he welcomes companies donating equipment to the college to help train students.

”State funding for community colleges is a challenge given the state budget picture. Any assistance we can gain through partnerships with businesses to help train the workers of tomorrow we would appreciate and we think would be mutually beneficial.”

It is unclear whether community colleges will receive the same focus from the federal government under the new Trump administration. One of President Obama’s most high-profile initiatives is to make the first two years of community college tuition free to students that meet certain educational requirements.

It is too early to know what the outcome of that initiative will be under the new Republican leadership, said Mitsui.

For now, the new college president is focusing on how to expand the college’s workforce training, including its internship program.

“I will be working on a strategic approach to reaching out to employers,” he said.