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The Cleveland Indians Take On College Completion

From Left: Brian C. Barren, President, Business Operations, Cleveland Indians; Julie Szeltner, Director of Adult Programs, College Now Greater Cleveland; and Bill Koehler, CEO, Team NEO.
Photo Credits: George I. Bylik

By Jane M. Von Bergen for The Graduate! Network

In Cleveland, it doesn’t matter if it’s Thursday. 

If the Indians are in town, it’s time for the grownups to play hooky. In their red T-shirts and baseball caps, fans of the Tribe pack the trains, heading towards Progressive Field, with Cleveland’s skyscrapers near enough for envious office workers to almost field a fly.

Doesn’t matter either if the season ended as this year’s did, with mid-September’s hope for a post-season spot dying one sad game after another.

It doesn’t matter because in the world of professional sports, there are plenty of college graduates eager to work in baseball, drawn by the romance of the game -- the tense drama of pitcher versus batter or the operatic flight of the ball hitting the high notes on its soaring arc to distant bleachers. 

So why would someone like Brian Barren, president of business operations for the Cleveland Indians, get involved with a program to help adults who left college come back – maybe for a degree, maybe for a certificate? 

“I’m a big believer that education is transformational and provides the platform for changing the trajectory of someone’s life,” Barren said, sitting in one of the stadium’s suites hours after the Chicago White Sox had bested the Indians.

Barren serves on the board of College Now Greater Cleveland. While he came to the board with an interest in mentoring Cleveland’s teenagers as they move into college, “the adult piece has been fascinating for me personally,” he said.

College Now is part of The Graduate! Network, a national collaboration of organizations dedicated to helping adults return to college.

In his position, Barren has something that most of College Now’s board members don’t – the ability to use Cleveland’s love of baseball to influence the influencers among Cleveland’s business community so they will step up to the plate to further the education of Cleveland’s citizens.

It’s important. 

In Ohio, just over one in four adults has a bachelor’s degree or higher. One in five adults, 20.5 percent, are people who began college, but didn’t finish. College graduates typically command higher earnings. But adults who don’t finish don’t get the earnings bump that comes with a diploma. Worse, they are often saddled with college debt they can’t afford to pay.

Meanwhile, the labor market is tightening, and jobs are going unfilled. 

Team NEO, the quasi-public organization charged with attracting businesses to Northeast Ohio’s 18 counties – including Cleveland and Akron – undertook landmark research into the region’s talent gap in its Aligning Opportunities reports. Other business attraction organizations might try to hide a worker shortage, but Team NEO went the other way. 

“There are some people who said, `You know, if you start publicizing this, you're going to make it harder for yourself to attract companies,” said Bill Koehler, chief executive officer of Team NEO. 

“I am a believer that it's a bigger issue,” Koehler said. “Companies see the talent gap everywhere. I believe if we're able to demonstrate objectivity around the problem -- that we have strategies in place and organizations that are trying to work the problem -- that is a better story than glossing over what everyone knows to be true.”

What is true is that Northeast Ohio, with its population of 4.3 million, should be producing 37,600 college graduates a year, based on national averages. Instead, only 31,300 earn diplomas, according to Team NEO’s 2019 Aligning Opportunities report.  

To compile the report, research vice president Jacob Duritsky relied on labor market software analytics from Boston-based Burning Glass Technologies. Chief executive Matthew Sigelman serves on The Graduate! Network board.

In information technology, for example, there were 12,661 openings for computer workers of all types in 2018, including 5,388 entry level positions. Meanwhile, in 2017, the region’s post-secondary institutions awarded a total of 2,216 certifications, leaving 3,172 positions begging.

Northeast Ohio retains a strong manufacturing base – for now. But labor shortages threaten it. In manufacturing, there were 2,063 entry level openings for skilled metal and plastic workers, including welders, but only 106 certificates awarded -- a talent gap of 1,957 positions.  

“What Aligning Opportunities has found -- and it’s now in its third year -- is that in three critical areas of the economy, IT, but also healthcare and manufacturing, there aren't enough graduates to fill all of the in-demand jobs, particularly the entry-level in-demand jobs,” Duritsky said. 

“We have a significant mismatch,” he said. 

To Duritsky, it appears as if the businesses aren’t talking quickly and directly enough to post-secondary institutions about their needs. Meanwhile, the institutions are either late to base or missing the ball.   

The Graduate! Network’s national Bridging the Talent Gap* research shows that most businesses don’t have active partnerships with local learning institutions. Yet, 97 percent of businesses surveyed for that report in Cleveland said they’d be interested in developing a partnership.   

College Now can help, said Julie Szeltner, senior director of adult programs and services. It has relationships with local learning institutions to facilitate the conversation.

The goal would be two-fold: To help employers work with post-secondary institutions to tailor business-specific programs and, also, to assist companies to assist their employees -- particularly those who left college – in obtaining the right credentials or degrees. 

Help with those decisions is available through College Now and a new free searchable database, Managing Advancement Programs, or MAP, developed by College Now and TeamNEO with funding from the Deaconess Foundation. With assistance from trained counselors, students can compare costs, locations and hours for 758 training programs for in-demand jobs. Offerings include five-year college computer-engineering programs and three-week OSHA certifications.

Companies win with a better-skilled workforce. Employees win because their credentials can command higher wages. Significantly, the region wins in terms of competitiveness. Szeltner’s boss, College Now’s chief executive officer Lee Friedman, puts it this way: “It has to happen in Northeast Ohio or else we’re going to go out of business.” 

So, what position do Brian Barren and the Cleveland Indians play? 

It’s up to Barren to influence not only the Tribe – Cleveland’s affectionate name for its baseball team – but the entire tribe of Cleveland’s business community. Barren knows them well, because many rent suites at the ball park or buy sponsorships.

“Very tactically, one of the things that we do is host a College Now board meeting here for an Indian’s game. We generally have high attendance on that specific game day,” he said. “And it is an opportunity.” Barren is serving on a College Now sub-committee to build better networks “with key leaders in the business community” to connect them to College Now’s resources. 

On a warm Thursday in September, like any home game day, 1,500 people were working in the ball park, most of them employed by outside contractors who handle ushering, security and clean-up as well as hot dog, beer and T-shirt sales. 

Many of them fit the business definition of retail workers – meaning those who serve the customers directly, whether in stores selling shoes or in stadiums selling hot dogs. Most retailers promote from within, at least for first-level supervisory positions. It’s no different at Progressive Field. 

Some the stadium crew will eventually become year-round part-time employees of the Indians, working the same type of job, but at a supervisory level, with other tasks during the off-season. The team employs about 200 people full time. 

“We're hiring people that are actually moving through that progression,” Barren said. “It's intentional, it's methodical, and it's planned. Just like baseball players have a minor league system, we look at that as our minor league or our farm system for the development of people to enter the business side.”

For example, he said, he referred a custodian to College Now, who helped with counseling and enrollment. Could that custodian, with the right degree, ever become an accountant for the Indians? 

“Absolutely yes,” Barren said.

Full time employees can qualify for the Indians’ $5,000 annual undergraduate tuition reimbursement program.

At the Indians, executives like Barren are required by the team’s owners to commit volunteer time, particularly to board service. But Barren’s motivation for joining College Now is also personal.

His parents were both school teachers, between them earning enough, barely to support six children. “I was blessed to grow up in a household where the concept of furthering your education was a given,” Barren said. 

Barren knit together several scholarships and campus jobs to pay his way through Princeton where he played football. One day, his coach pulled him off the practice field and directed him to a gentleman on the sidelines. “My coach told me, `It’s our understanding that you haven’t paid for your freshman year in its entirety, which would make you ineligible. If you’re ineligible, the team will forfeit games. You’re not going to practice until you get it handled.’” 

No problem. Barren just used the money for his sophomore year to pay off his freshman year. Then he had a new problem – insufficient funds for his sophomore year. Barren and the financial aid person worked out a solution. Barren would take a second job as a dishwasher on campus and sign his paychecks over to the bursar’s office. 

Would that have happened if Barren hadn’t been on the football team? 

“It’s a combination of knowing the right people with whom to make a connection,” Barren said. “You have to have that network of people there to support you, who believe in you more than you believe in yourself.” 

That’s exactly what College Now is trying to be, Szeltner said, for adults who return to school, for colleges who need more students in classrooms and for businesses desperate to fill open positions. And so, Barren is stepping up to the plate – making his pitch to his fellow business people. “If employees don’t have the basic tools, because they are under-educated, they are actually holding back the [entire] workforce in Northeast Ohio,” he said. “The challenge these companies in Northeast Ohio have is that they can’t keep up with the demands of their customers. Then it’s a vicious cycle.”

On any game day, Barren can track the local economy simply by walking into the stands where the cheapest tickets sell for $15.

 “The socioeconomic viability of Northeast Ohio is critically important to the success of our professional sports teams, particularly in baseball,” he said. 

“If [our fans] don’t have a good enough job, they can’t come to games,” Barren said. “Our attendance will be lower. Our revenue will be lower. And with no salary cap, our team payrolls will be lower. It’s increasingly more difficult to compete against big market teams that have different resources and capabilities than small market teams like Cleveland.

“What are we going to do to address that?” he asked rhetorically. “We’re going to try and find a way to better educate our people, so people can buy a ticket.”

*The Bridging The Talent Gap survey was funded by the Walmart Foundation

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