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Hot on Campus | September 11, 2012

Trained to work

Employment

Community colleges redefine their role in education through advances in workforce development

The lower bow section of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford is lowered into position at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., Thursday, May 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Brandon Lassiter got out of the Air Force at 24 and started searching for a way to jumpstart a career as an electrician. Deeply interested in the field, he taught himself a lot of the basic skills needed to get a job, but seemed to be at a dead end. Then he saw a television ad for the Newport News Shipbuilding Marine Electrician training program at Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) in Hampton, Va.

"Outside of this program, it would have been much harder to get a job because most of the jobs in this field want previous work experience, but don't provide it," Lassiter said.

The training program Lassiter joined at TNCC is a customized employment solution - a joint venture between employers and community colleges now at the forefront of today's technical education. At their birth in 1901, two-year schools called themselves junior colleges because they were designed to provide the two junior years of a bachelor's degree. But today, community colleges have changed their name and reinvented their role.

By the end of the last century, community colleges began to provide occupational technical education - short-term degrees that immediately qualified students for specific jobs. In that role, community colleges became the largest producers of nurses, firefighters, policemen, EMT's and other technicians in the U.S. Today, these colleges have become community workforce development centers, partnering with employers to prepare students for waiting jobs.

Most people don't know that community colleges have become so important to the health of regional economies, said Dr. Deborah George Wright, vice president of workforce development at TNCC. These schools and their training programs help preserve local jobs in a variety of sectors and work to develop new jobs everyday, she said.

TNCC is one of the Virginia's leading workforce developers, with 14 major industry partners that include Newport News Shipbuilding, the NASA Langley Research Center, Canon Virginia, Inc., and the Liebherr Group. Out of the Virginia Peninsula's population of about 500,000, these fourteen companies alone employ 25,000 people a year in just the advanced manufacturing sector.

Beyond that, TNCC has several strong military partnerships with the Army, Air force, and Navy. Fort Eustis, Langley Air Force Base and the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station are just a few of the military bases in the area.

Like most community colleges, TNCC uses its partnerships to feel out the local job market, finding out what positions are open and what positions will open. The school's administrators also find out what current jobs will be outdated and what new jobs will take their place. TNCC recently headed a study of companies on the Virginia Peninsula and found that an estimated 11,150 jobs would open during the next five years, in 11 different occupations.

Community colleges develop customized curriculum as part of joint training programs with companies, created to pipeline students into jobs. Some programs offer degrees, while others provide certificates. Some are designed to train new or potential employees, and others are made to retrain current employees. The programs operate on campus, at the worksite, or a combination of both. The customizations are endless, but the goal remains the same: employment.

"That's what makes community colleges reinvented for the 21st century," Wright said. "Community colleges are reengineering themselves for these customized solutions to reemploy America."

TNCC has provided customized training for local industries for 40 years, and many community colleges across the U.S. have similar programs and partnerships, said Jim McKenney, vice president of workforce and economic development at the American Association of Community Colleges. Although the partnerships aren't new, some are becoming more creative, bringing community colleges closer to their local employer base, McKenney said.

The auto industry -- which has a long history of individual, localized partnerships between manufacturing plants and community colleges -- has been doing just that by convening its players to accomplish a common goal.

Last month, after seven years of development with GM, Ford, Toyota, BMW, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen and more than 30 community colleges, the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative (AMTEC) unveiled a standardized training curriculum for the industry's manufacturers. It was the first time that such an extensive, workforce-development collaboration had worked toward a common goal in the auto industry.

The curriculum is designed to keep auto-manufacturing jobs in the U.S., said AMTEC Executive Director Annette Parker: "The [manufacturing] workforce has become more global. The workforce is mobile and manufacturers need to know that the skills their workforce has are the same wherever they are."

With endorsed standardization from all the major manufacturers, these new training modules can be as mobile as the workforce that needs them and can deliver consistency in what colleges across the U.S. can offer.

As the curriculum begins to debut at the community colleges involved in the collaboration, companies are becoming more involved in the recruiting process and more personally invested in a U.S. workforce, Parker said. The hope is that this will protect the number of auto manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and help them grow, Parker said.

While innovation with workforce development grows on community college campuses, the training programs they develop sometimes struggle with lower enrollment than traditional associate's degree programs, said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2007 that only 35 percent of all postsecondary students in the U.S. enrolled at community colleges that year. Within that percentage, Wyner said the majority of degrees on community college campuses are still in general education and the allied health professions.

Workforce development training programs remain an under-appreciated element of what community colleges are doing in our country, due in part to a history in the U.S. of ambivalence toward career and technical education, Wyner said.

"If you go to Lake Area Technical Institute, they will tell you that they still have challenges convincing people that it's worth doing two years of training to be a diesel mechanic even though they have a 100 percent job placement and the jobs pay $60,000 right out of school," Wyner said. "It's because of this ambivalence we have about technical training, and I think we need to honor the work."

Although fewer students seem interested in the technical training programs, their graduation rates are mostly higher than general education programs, in part because students know what they want when they enter and can see their goal at its completion, Wyner said. Lassiter, the aspiring electrician, gives credit to that theory.

After three weeks of on-campus training at TNCC, Lassiter became the first graduate to get a perfect score in the marine electrician training program. He now works as a deck electrician at the Newport News shipyard and looks forward to making a career out of his new skills.

"I benefited from the course a lot," Lassiter said. "[I came away with] skills that go beyond the shipyard and into the career world, skills that I know can take me pretty far."