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Driving Access, Completion and Relevance: Understanding the Role of Technical Colleges

Technical college short-term training models have always existed, but a growing labor skills gap has shone the spotlight back onto these non-credit, competency-based institutions.

The labor market skills gap is one the biggest problems higher ed faces today. As workforce demands increase, adult learners need to train quickly to stay relevant. Technical colleges have honed a short-term training model that four-year institutions and private providers are trying to replicate. With so many new market entrants, can technical colleges stay competitive? In this interview, Melanie Hall discusses why technical colleges are gaining more attention and how to stay alive in this competitive industry.

The EvoLLLution (Evo):  What are a few key characteristics that help technical colleges stand out as solvers of labor market skills gaps?

Melanie Hall (MH): The first thing is that most technical training, at least in our system, is certificate-based rather than degree. That means students can move quickly through a program, often in a year or less, and progress into a job at a faster pace. With a degree pathway you’re looking at a number of years before matriculation into the labor market, depending on the degree pathway. So, the time and entry into industry is the first distinguisher.

Second, because we work very closely with the industry, our curriculum is always evolving. It’s a very agile development for us to make sure that we’re training for what students are going to see on day one in a job. In a traditional postsecondary environment, there are curriculum and program committees that get voted on a couple of times a year, which means making big shifts to curriculum can take more time. In a technical institute we can shift gears fairly quickly to match industry needs. We meet with advisory committees a couple of times a year to make sure we’re on track.

Third, technical colleges are competency based. As such, a student can come in with prior learning and demonstrate that they can start in advanced placement within a program, rather than right at the beginning. We focus on ensuring students are in the right place at the right time. They can work through the content in their courses at their own pace so, if it’s an area they know, they can progress more quickly. Conversely, they can slow down if the content is a little more rigorous and challenging. We don’t operate on a semester system, which also means that, for the most part, students can start our programs any day of the week .

We develop programs around clear areas of demand for industry, and make sure there are jobs for those students at the end of their program. We’re not just developing programs that seem nice and interesting, but create clear pathways to high demand, high wage jobs.

Evo: Is all programming offered by technical colleges non-credit and competency based?

MH: It depends on the technical college system. There are some variations from state to state, and some institutions offer both credit-bearing and certificate programs. In Utah, for example, we have two postsecondary systems. The Utah System of Technical Colleges (UTECH), which we’re part of, does not offer degree programs. Everything we offer is certificate based. Then, within the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE), some of our universities and colleges also have a career and technical education component, whose programs could be certificate based or offer degree pathways. Institutions in that system have a dual mission.

The major difference is that institutions in the USHE operate on a semester system. That means students have to progress in more of a lockstep fashion. Across UTECH’s eight colleges, we all have similar competency-based frameworks. Students move at their own pace and, for the most part, can start anytime.

Evo: Why are four-year universities beginning to enter the technical education and training space?

MH: Some four-year institutions have always been in this space but they historically haven’t been riding shotgun. What we’ve seen over the last few decades is high school counselors and parents pushing learners toward four-year degree pathways, which led to an increase in degree program enrollments. The problem, though, is it left a labor gap in the traditional trades, like plumbing and manufacturing.

Over the past few years, enrollment trends have started to swing back the other direction as more individuals recognized the need for more short-term, industry-specific training to meet significant workforce demands. With that shift, technical colleges and dual-mission institutions are now moving back to the center of focus.

Other universities begin to offer certificates and degree add-ons because they’re finding that their students move through degree programs without an element of hands-on, practical experience. In engineering tracks for example, coursework can be theoretical. And while employers want those engineering degrees, they also want new employees to have had practical, hands-on application of what they’ve learned.

Evo: How can technical colleges use techniques like stackable credentialing models to maintain a longer-term relationship with learners?

MH: Stackable credentialing is at the heart of our discussions in education, both in the technical college space and the traditional higher education system. It’s on the minds of our legislators as well.

As we examine how to give students the best possible shot at a thriving career, it really does require ongoing learning with technical and more academic opportunities.

In Utah, students can complete their junior and senior years of high school at a technical college tuition-free. That’s a great advantage for a student who might be more mechanically minded, as they can start early and when they graduate high school they’ll move right into a career. But we’ve worked very hard on pathways and articulations with our other higher education institutions so that a student can continue from their technical education into a degree pathway. They could be working while they’re in college and moving successfully toward a degree. For us, it’s not an either-or situation, where students do non-credit, technical education or degree-directed education. In our minds, it’s an “and” situation.

Evo: What else can technical colleges do to maintain their edge over these new market entrants?

MH: Since we’re a public institution, a state institution, we do a very good job of addressing the barriers to access and success. Those barriers can take numerous forms. It could be a financial situation, where an individual is coming back into training after a job loss, for example. But we actively work with our students to help them avoid and overcome those barriers. We align resources to help students get started, stay in the program through to completion, and transition into a job.

We have a placement center on campus to help our learners enter the workforce, but our faculty are really well connected to the industry as well. They know better than anybody about how to get students into a job, and who to talk to. In a traditional postsecondary model, courses are often taught by PhD-holders who have a strong understanding about the subject matter, but minimal industry experience. This means they unfortunately don’t always have those contact points to help a student progress into a job. That’s the difference a technical college can provide. Our instructors are well-connected industry experts, and our placement rates are high as a result.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about role of technical colleges and their capacity to serve learners both over the short and long term?

MH: Technical education is one of the most accessible forms of education on the market. Any demographic can walk onto our campus and get a start within days. And they can sustain their momentum because we have the infrastructure to support students for the long haul.

We’re passionate. We really care about this. At Davis Tech, our tagline is, “We Change Lives.” It’s not a sales pitch. It’s a meaningful thing to us and we absolutely believe that if we do these things right, we are going to be the difference in that person’s life.

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