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How to find more workers: Partnerships between colleges, employers - the college view

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Oct, 9 2017, 11:27 AM

Editor' note: How can employers find more qualified workers in today's scarce tech-trained labor market pool? Wake Tech Community College is working with Triangle firms such as Lenovo and NetApp to provide talent these tech giants need. In a two-part article, executives involved in the program explain how it worked. The first focuses on the college point of view. Matt Zullo, the author, is department chair of Network & Computer Technologies at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh. Bob Nelson, the author of the second story written from the employer viewpoint, is Technical Support Manager at JAGGAER, formerly known as SciQuest, and at one time was an executive with NetApp.

RALEIGH - Partnerships between colleges and employers can work with clear goals and executive buy-in.

Wake Technical Community College faculty and administration are typically highly skilled in their subject matter areas. Occasionally, technical college subject matter experts lose sight of some of the fundamental tenets of education.

When a local technology company asked if we would partner with them to supply graduates with a specific set of skills, I didn't approach it like many technical community college administrators might have. Going back to the basics of building a program worked very well with this local employer.

Ensure the company wants a curriculum program

Over the years, many "workforce enablement" representatives from corporations have requested services, and they did not value a curriculum education; their bottom line was inexpensive, short term, focused training. But this group sought students who were poised to become lifelong learners. They even expressed their preference for general education skills outside the technical areas: their employees regularly have to "relate well" to their customers, and liberal arts courses provide students with a more well-rounded perspective of the world.

Bring in HR right away

At the outset, I asked "have you brought your human resources people onboard with this idea?" An unfortunate stereotype some of our graduates suffer from is the four year bias of the HR filter. I told the company that we could pump out graduates with every skill they seek, but if the HR filter removes everyone without a four year degree, hiring authorities would never see these highly qualified candidates.

Develop the curriculum

We gathered supervisors from the corporation who served as the advisory committee for the development of the degree. We discussed one main question "what skills would make me want to hire a candidate for employment?"

In the education biz, most people would call that developing a curriculum (DACUM). Often, administrators mistake the term curriculum with "courses" but I had the advantage of having a development committee made up of non-educators. I asked them for skills, and over a few weeks and meetings, we got a true curricular list. Skills ranged from highly technical to broadly general. Then I began the process of translating the skills list into courses.

I wanted to keep the group focused on skills, so I presented them with a variety of course descriptions, but I held back the course titles and prefixes. That way they kept their eyes on the stated course objectives. We ended up with some surprising course selections; things I would not normally have considered, because the course prefix was outside my department area. It was only at this point that I compared our course list to our curriculum standard. The unique combination of courses that resulted from our DACUM didn't fit any degree program our college was approved to offer.

If we had taken the opposite perspective (work from our already approved program standards), I think we would never have considered courses that actually supplied needed competencies - because they would not have fit the course list for the older standards. Building a program from the skills up, even though it required additional delay and the administrative burden of applying to offer a new degree, is one of the things that made this effort so successful.

Partner for employment

The degree was designed to require a full year of on the job training for every student. After a year of technical education, students apply to part time positions at the company; they are interviewed by a committee to ensure that they possess the basic skills required to work in the department; their job is registered as a course with the college, and students earn credit for every ten hours per week that they work at their new career. Most students work more than 20 hours per week, at a very competitive wage for technology jobs. At the end of three semesters, the company has tested out each student in at least three different roles, and their supervisors have a good idea whether or not they fit the mold for a new hire.

Not all our students end up working for this particular employer, but after three years offering the degree, 79% are working in the field they studied, and all of them are continuing to learn; either by seeking a four year degree, or by continuing the path of industry certification. The program truly produced both things: employment candidates with a full set of technical skills as well as students who consider themselves lifelong learners.