Applied Technology Colleges: Driving Workforce Development and Economic GrowthDavid Pistner | Director of Energy Initiatives, Pennsylvania College of Technology
Carey, a military veteran, worked as a forestry consultant but left as the industry declined. With a family to feed and driven to find stable employment at a livable wage, he worked weekends as a truck driver while pursuing a college degree during the week. He enrolled in ShaleNET, a short-term, bootcamp-style training program to earn industry-recognized credentials and acquire hands-on experience to complement his field of study. Carey’s purpose in pursuing this diverse blend of classroom and hands-on education was to differentiate himself from other candidates and obtain employment.
Stories of non-traditional students working and supporting a family while pursuing an education represent a niche that applied-technology institutions are able to fill. Considerable research has been done on the changing demographics of the non-traditional student. The average two-year occupational undergrad is 29 years old, 58 percent are female, and 46 percent of the student body is minorities. Roughly a third of undergraduates are the first generation from their family to go to college, and 23 percent are parents. College students face many challenges in their pursuit of higher education, including financial constraints, work and family schedules, balancing a job with their studies, and skill retooling.
On the opposite side of the economic equation, employers are struggling to find and keep talent and, therefore, look to these institutions as a source for job-ready candidates or as a resource to retrain existing workers. Many industrial sectors are becoming increasingly concerned with how they will fill a “middle skills” gap created when skilled employees retire before newer employees possess the skills and experience to replace these workers. As an example, the energy industry estimates that up to 50 percent of their workforce will retire in the next 10 years. Along with this exodus goes years of experience and hard-to-replace skill sets. To address this gap, employers are turning to applied-technology colleges for well-trained talent so that these vacated, skilled positions are filled in a manner that decreases the learning curve and increases profitability.
The challenge for many applied-technology colleges is how to reconcile the seemingly diverging missions of providing employers with job-ready candidates while fulfilling the core mission of open enrollment for students with a wide spectrum of backgrounds and experiences. At Pennsylvania College of Technology—a special mission affiliate of Penn State—this gap is resolved by some incoming students receiving additional instruction in remedial math and science. Once they have acquired the necessary level of academic proficiency, students spend three hours in the lab working with state-of-the industry equipment for every hour they spend in the classroom. Across the college’s array of two- and four-year degree programs, this approach has yielded a 96-percent placement rate. These results are indicative of what can be accomplished when students are prepared for high demand occupations, and often at very competitive wages. For employers, performance is what matters.
The first demand of colleges is getting their graduates job-ready. To gain a better understanding of the local job market, four-year applied technology institutions often form partnerships with the economic development community. This community often is comprised of economic development agencies, chambers of commerce, workforce development boards and other organizations to establish economic and workforce development goals for a region. Higher education institutions often have and face a range of questions when it comes to student job placement: In what industrial sectors do we have a competitive advantage? In what areas do we want to promote growth? Is there a middle skills deficiency? What skills do we need to develop in order to realize these goals? These are all questions that applied-technology colleges can answer.
The environment in which we live and work is rapidly changing. Both employers and students are demanding greater flexibility from educational providers to accommodate often-conflicting influences on how we live and conduct business. Successful applied-technology colleges stay relevant in this dynamic environment by evolving and reinventing how education is delivered. This can be accomplished in several ways:
1. Innovative Educational Delivery Methods
First, colleges need to develop and embrace non-traditional methods to deliver material. This may include online instruction; a blend between online, classroom and practical training; or offering courses outside of typical work hours.
2. Workforce Development Board Partnerships
Second, colleges need to actively engage and partner with their local workforce development boards and one-stop career centers. These relationships will provide information about the skills needed by employers and aid in fulfilling the critical role of connecting employers with well trained candidates.
3. Strong Employer Relationships
Third, colleges need to develop healthy relationships with area employers. Robust discussions about future growth opportunities; what new technology, service or reinvented method of production is needed to realize that growth; what skill sets are necessary to deliver the service; what skill sets are missing in candidates or the incumbent workforce; and what instruction colleges can offer employers so they can realize their competitive advantage. It is easy for these college-employer discussions to become routine exercises with little generation of innovative ideas. Both parties need to energize these conversations, push topics, seek answers, and hold each other accountable to achieve their shared goals.
4. Collaborative Mindsets
Fourth, colleges should come to the table with their economic partners to address the training and education needed to help that region attain its economic goals for retention, recruitment, incubation of jobs, and to show which existing industries have promise for cultivating growth and regionally diversifying the economic base.
Though many factors are weighed when making economic decisions, none is more important than workforce development. Having access to a trained workforce and having a highly functional and efficient educational system in place will often tilt the scales in favor of one region over another in the arena of economic development.
As the saying goes, the only constant is change. Applied-technology schools need to proactively work with employers and students to meet them where they are and drive the discussion that underpins the economic well-being of an area. For students like Carey, whose story opened this article, and employers looking to hire others like him, waiting for the discussion to take place is waiting too long. Educational institutions need to be in the forefront, working with employers and local organizations to best meet the needs of their community. In this way, they keep themselves relevant and are in a position to positively influence the present and future of the communities in which they are located.
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 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Career/Technical Education Statistics, 2011-2012.
 Georgetown University Center on Education (2012) and Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, June 2011.