Published on 2013/10/29
AUDIO | Collaborating to Drive Statewide Institutional Success
By working together, community colleges can ensure they create programs that are mutually beneficial while serving local industries and students simultaneously.

The following interview is with Ian Roark, dean of career, technical and workforce education at Odessa College. Roark’s institution has partnered with a number of other community colleges across Texas to create a stackable associate’s degree program aimed at oil and gas workers. In this interview, he discusses the program, its value to Odessa College and to students and shares his thoughts on how the concept might be expanded to other regions and industries.

Click here to read key takeaways

1. With such a large number of working adults in the oil and gas industry moving around Texas to work, why is it so important to partner with other community colleges around the state to create this set of stackable credentials?

In our region … there are a number of oil and gas plays in which skilled workers and non-skilled workers move as per production moves from one place to another or if a new shale play opens up. So many of the workers in the Permian Basin are very mobile within the basin. And these major employers, they serve large areas that cover the service areas of multiple community colleges.

So, it’s very important for the colleges to develop certificates transferable across all of the service areas of the community colleges so that we can, all together, meet the needs of the same employers.

2. Are these certificates recognized by employers no matter where they come from, as having recognition of the same skills?

When we say certificates, we’re actually talking about two different things. But my answer, yes, is to both of those definitions.

The first definition is the institutional certificate that we offer — which is our workforce-ready certificate … — housed under an applied associate’s of sciences degree.

Then there are also industry-specific certificates that, at some colleges, can be offered through continuing education, while other colleges, they can be offered under a degree program if the curricula are aligned to those industry standards.

3. From the student’s perspective, what is the value of the stackable approach to a degree?

From the student’s perspective, it makes them marketable, first to an employer for whom they may have an internship or already have gainful employment with here in the Basin. Many of our students already come to these programs being sponsored by business and industry partners, which is very good … for the student, for the employer and for the college, because everybody has an investment in developing the student to maximize their skills and their employability — both the soft skills and with hard skills.

But, also, if that student decides they want to go work for somebody else and that somebody else happens to reside in another region, then the certificate is portable and they are marketable across a broader region than just in the local labor market.

4. How has being a part of this collaboration impacted adult enrollments at Odessa College?

In the past, we typically saw a cycle that really acted the opposite of what we call the “boom and bust cycle” of the oil and gas industry. So, with the … now-antiquated boom and bust cycle, what we saw was that when the oil and gas industry was really ramped up … enrollments at the community college, and including Odessa College, very typically very low. Then, when there was a “bust” … all of a sudden, community colleges’ enrollments start to go up.

You have this, sort of, dysfunctional back and forth between the two. And now, since about 2009, we have actually seen a coming together of the labor market and the production cycle of oil. And, so, what’s happened … is because there are more skilled technicians required now in the oil field than in the days past … our enrollments are actually up and all of our oil and gas-serving programs and all of those programs that aren’t, maybe, even tied directly to oil and gas but do serve the broader industry itself.

Enrollment is up at Odessa College, both in continuing education and in our double-AS degrees for technical studies.

5. What do you think the impact of this program will be on statewide degree completion?

We’ve seen locally at our college that the impact is very good on completion rates; our completion rates have actually been going up since 2009 and are among the highest in the state of Texas for technical students. The reality is that when we match a student to a willing employer who values education, to the curriculum that’s in our program and with our instructors who are really focused on engaging students and building relationships over and above just teaching the technical skills, we see a very high competition rate in this labor market, which is very good.

6. How can this program be replicated to suit other industries and other regions?

Typically, if colleges have service areas, by default, there is some sense of competition. But in this case what we found was that when you compete to that level, it becomes dysfunctional for the students and the industry and the communities.

What we really need to do as community college leaders is take a step back and look at the labor market dynamics within our regions to begin with and ensure we’re not offering a bunch of boutique programs that don’t meet the needs of business and industry.

The best thing we can do is to wholly align our curriculum to business and industry and the labor market. We need to be working with our workforce development boards or economic development boards, depending on the structure in your region or in your community. Instead of clinging to those programs we know maybe aren’t really adding value to the labor market itself, and therefore not providing jobs to students and the families, we need to be willing to let go of some of the things we shouldn’t be offering and really start investing our time and our resources and our efforts in those programs [where] we know there is growth and opportunity for students.

So, it may not be oil and gas, but there may be another economic driver in the region and I would suggest and recommend that the conversations be held around finding [out] what those drivers are and aligning programs to those.

7. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of a program like this, not just to students or to the institutions, but to the larger community?

Everybody talks about the high school dropout rate. And, of course, the secondary dropout rates leads to a number of other problems for the community as a whole. And, so, what we’re doing with these is we’re actually getting high school students enrolled into the training programs where these certificates are offered because we have such a ramped-up labor market that, in working with employers, we decided it was best to grow our own. And, by growing our own, [I mean] getting students into the industrial workforce pipeline earlier in collaboration with the school district and providing a lot of scholarship support, and support from business and industry in the community to offset the cost of tuition and fees for the students. … So that’s the one way we believe we’re adding value to the community, is that we’re having a higher-educated workforce at an earlier age and that just starts to steam a whole bunch of issues.

The other thing that we’re working on is in partnership with the Texas Workforce Commission. We are really taking advantage of the Skills Development Grants where we partner with companies to do training on the continuing education side as a part of this larger collaborative effort. What we’re doing is designing curriculum all the colleges can use as a sort of the Rosetta Stone or Matrix, if you will, that allows for training that occurs under the continuing education side to be articulated back onto a degree, should the student decide to enroll in the college. And, so, then they can enter the degree program with college credits under their belt already for the real-world work experience they already had, maybe at a different position within that same company.

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Key Takeaways

  • Working with other community colleges to create a degree program has increased the value of degree programs statewide for major employers and adult students
  • Designing programs that reflect the experiences of employees and meet the needs of employers increases degree completion rates at the institution
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Readers Comments

Henrik Olsen 2013/10/29 at 11:24 am

“The best thing we can do is to wholly align our curriculum to business and industry and the labor market. We need to be working with out workforce development boards or economic development boards, depending on the structure in your region or in your community.”

Agreed. The most effective way to build a pipeline from college to the workforce is to have all of the “builders” (employers, instructors, students, professional bodies and so on) working from the same blueprint. As obvious as this sounds, it has yet to become an operational reality in many postsecondary programs.

Charlene L 2013/10/29 at 4:52 pm

The “stackable” credential is a good way of developing a culture of lifelong learning. Often times, non-traditional students choose to enrol for pragmatic reasons; a certain credential is needed for a specific job. While that may be enough for their current circumstance, issues of advancement or changing life situations often crop up later on, causing them to need further or new education. Instead of starting from scratch, it is helpful if they can build — or stack — on a previous credential.

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