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Creating Tech Programs Industry Wants

With the demand for STEM skills growing, community colleges play a key role in preparing students for local industry needs. CT looks at three ways schools are training the next generation of tech employees.

South Seattle Community College’s aerospace program relies on industry advisers to identify the skills, knowledge, and ability needed for jobs.

Community colleges serve on the front line of workforce development. With their focus on applied science associate degrees and technical certificate programs, they provide students with a high-quality, low-cost education that prepares them for careers in one to two years. And for students who can't take time away from their family or work to attend a four-year school, they offer much-needed flexibility, too.

"Community colleges serve a broad spectrum of customers," notes Ellen Gordon, program administrator for the Air Washington and National STEM Consortium grants and the building sciences programs at South Seattle Community College (WA). "Our customers are not only local businesses that hire our students, and people who are trying to get into the workforce, but also the community at large, and the members of the community who are trying to find their American Dream by bettering themselves through education. We want people to get a job, keep a job, and then get a better job. And the way you do that is to train them well in a field where there is job demand, and give them the math, science, and technical skills they need to continue improving their skills throughout their career."

This story appeared in the August 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

But how does a community college ensure that its curriculum is up-to-date and aligned with the skills its students need in the workforce? To answer this question, Campus Technology recently spoke with representatives from SSCC, whose area is home to Boeing and a growing aerospace-manufacturing industry, and Anne Arundel Community College (MD), whose local economy is built around government, military, and defense contractors. Here are their three keys to providing students with the training that local industry wants:

1) Identify the Needs of Your Community
Advisory boards are a key resource for ensuring that students learn the skills they'll need in the local economy. "We have advisory boards both collegewide and at the program level," notes Marjorie Rawhouser, assistant professor of engineering at AACC. In assembling these boards, she advises, look to companies in the region that hire a large number of graduates, or companies that hire a large number of professionals in relevant fields.

"In the engineering department, our advisory board meets twice a year and is made up of people who are currently working in the industry, people who've recently left the industry for education, or people who have a lot of experience teaching in the industry in various locations," she explains. "It really helps us stay plugged in to what's happening out in the field."

While advisory board members advise the college on curriculum issues, they also share their knowledge about new positions needed in the field, as well as internship and co-op opportunities. The members of any advisory board should encompass all types of local industries that may need the skills taught in a program. For example, the advisory board members for AACC's CyberCenter (a program focusing on IT security) span healthcare, defense contracting, government, education, retail, and other organizations.

"It's not just government that's interested in information assurance," explains Kip Kunsman, director of the CyberCenter. "Everyone needs to protect their data and their networks. Any organization that you can think of where you might swipe a credit card or share personal information via the internet is very interested in making sure that they maintain a secure environment."

When AACC started its collegewide STEM initiative in 2007, it also formed a small advisory board made up of government and military partners, local industry partners, and campus workforce-development administrators. "Our county executive supported a three-year-plan to establish an AACC regional STEM center at the Arundel Mills facility, which is close to Fort Meade," says Richard Cerkovnik, director of the STEM center. "The three goals that we have are: to increase the pathways for students to enter into STEM programs or certificates through outreach at the K-12 level and articulations with four-year schools; to increase the number of highly qualified teachers in STEM; and to prepare the workforce for STEM. Those three goals together cover pretty much everything. There's nothing in STEM that we don't get to do."

When developing a new program for a growing industry, community colleges should realize that they don't always have to start from scratch. Often, government-launched consortia will research the industry's needs, from the type of skills needed to the number of trained workers required. While Boeing is a major adviser for SSCC's aerospace programs, the college's programs must also serve the needs of the industries in Boeing's supply chain--a growing area, especially with manufacturing now on the rise in Washington.

"In the aerospace industry right now, there are more than 20 consortia looking at industry needs from a very high level, and they all have industry representation," remarks Gordon. "As specific types of jobs are identified, we have [consortia] people come in for a structured interview to identify the skills, knowledge, and ability needed for these jobs, so we can train to those specific needs."

2) Don't Let Your Program Exist in a Vacuum
When it comes to actually teaching these specific skills, there also has to be open communication between industry partners and the school, especially in fields related to information technology, where industry standards evolve at breakneck pace.

"We can't sit in a vacuum relying on our own expertise, because there's just no way that our faculty and subject matter experts can be everywhere and experience everything that's going on externally," explains Kunsman. "Obviously, there are industry secrets and proprietary information that different companies own, but, where possible, we ask them to keep us abreast of what they're seeing, whether in government or private industry. That helps us maintain and prepare a pipeline of new workers--and upgrade the skills of their current workforce."

When AACC's CyberCenter was established in early 2010, AACC became the first community college to map its cybersecurity curriculum to the Committee on National Security Systems 4011 standards and subsequent 4013 standards. "Our curriculum has to be on the bleeding edge," explains Kunsman. In fact, AACC has already rewritten the curriculum and requirements for a digital forensics certificate introduced in September 2011, based both on information from advisory board members and information available to the general public. "For academia, that's really unusual, but technology changes quickly," says Kunsman. "Once you patch up a hole in a network, hackers find a new way into a system."

Once an advisory board has identified a new tech skill needed in the workforce, the community college must ensure that its faculty members master the skill in order to be able to teach it to students. In Kunsman's CyberCenter, professional development usually happens seamlessly because the adjunct professors who teach most of the center's classes are still working in the industry.

"Because this is a relatively new field, most of our faculty are current industry professionals employed in a number of different sectors," explains Kunsman. "Our students get real-world, hands-on experience based on what these experts see happening in their particular arena, whether it be government, defense contracting, or other industries." If faculty members don't bring a particular skill set from their workplace, Kunsman sends them out for professional development, upgrading their skills in new certifications related to the cyber arena.

Just as community colleges can turn to government-funded consortia when it comes to researching industry needs, they also can partner with other groups to help develop student skills. SSCC, for example, manages a number of registered apprenticeship programs in its Building Sciences and Aviation departments. Working out in the field, student apprentices get firsthand experience with new technologies deployed by industry professionals.

Students in the cement masons and plasterers apprenticeship, for instance, learned how to us new technologies for permeable concrete--designed to meet energy efficiency and sustainability requirements--at pace with industry professionals. "If there's a demand within the marketplace, an apprenticeship program adapts to those industry needs very quickly because of that close association with the workforce," explains Gordon.

The aerospace apprenticeship at SSCC is linked to Washington state's Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, a state-run initiative comprising industry employers and the International Association of Machinists. To support its apprenticeship programs, the committee maintains a mobile training unit that travels to companies and community colleges across the state.

"No one school or company could afford all of the specialized training software and equipment that's on that truck," says Gordon. "It's a really powerful way to aggregate resources and share them out."

3) Leverage National Needs for Local Gain
For-profit schools, such as ITT Technical Institute, often seem able to react to industry changes faster than community colleges. AACC's Rawhouser, who has experience working in the for-profit education sector, attributes this advantage to the nationwide footprint of these organizations. "They're drawing information from a lot of different regions, they have the resources of a large, nationwide organization, and, when they make a change to the curriculum, it affects a lot more people at once," she explains.

By pooling their resources, community colleges can reap many of the same benefits of a nationwide footprint. In September 2011, AACC was tapped by the Labor Department to lead a new National STEM Consortium. The consortium comprises 10 community colleges in regions with both high populations of dislocated workers affected by the recession and up-and-coming industries in need of skilled workers. Funding comes from a $19.6 million Labor Department grant, as part of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program.

The consortium is charged with developing one-year certificate programs in five emerging STEM industries: composite materials technology, cyber-technology, electric vehicle technology, environmental technology, and mechatronics. A school with a strong existing program will lead development of each certificate program, which will then be adopted by those member schools that have a demand for those skills in their region.

"These five areas have been identified as high-need, high-technology, and high-wage employment opportunities by industries across the country," explains Cerkovnik. "Instead of each school trying to write its own curriculum and reinvent the wheel, it's able to work with a community college with existing expertise in that area to quickly establish its own program." The grant includes money for the equipment and technology needed to support these certificates; after three years, the curriculum will be available to community colleges outside the consortium.

SSCC, Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, WA, and Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, OH, were tapped to participate in the program due to their strong curriculum in composite materials. With SSCC acting as the lead, the three schools are developing a program that will be implemented at Roane State Community College in Oneida, TN.

"Roane State is anticipating a need for highly skilled workers in composite materials manufacturing due to its proximity to Oak Ridge National Laboratory," says Gordon. "It's looking to start a program from the ground up, and now it'll be able to use our broad experience to meet its local needs."

AACC is developing certificates in cyber-technology and mechatronics through the National STEM Consortium. "We believe in a collaborative spirit, because it can only benefit our nation," explains Kunsman. "Each region throughout the country has specific industries that it supports, but cybersecurity spans all industries. It takes a tremendous investment of capital and time to keep our curriculum up-to-date. Now students across the country will be able to receive what I consider to be state-of-the-art instruction."

College of Lake County in Grayslake, IL, is the lead developer of the mechatronics certificate, with input from AACC and four other schools. "The mechatronics certificate is a major change for our engineering department, because we're actually adding this new program to meet the needs of industry in this area," notes Rawhouser. "Even though this certificate is being developed in conjunction with other community colleges as a national effort, we need to make sure that the curriculum meets the requirements of our local industry partners."

Cerkovnik sees this approach to curriculum development as a model worth emulating. "We're leveraging expertise across the nation, and the National STEM Consortium enables us to do it rapidly, with high quality," he explains. "Mechatronics is a new industry for our region, and we're developing the pathways to get people back into the workforce within a year's time."

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