Whatever it takes

Steven Partridge, vice president of workforce and economic development at Northern Virginia Community College, speaks Wednesday before the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee. (Image: Screenshot of webcast)

Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) is so overwhelmed by requests from local business and industry to help produce skilled workers that the college has primarily focused on “risk-of-flight” companies — firms that can move to find needed workers.

“I get employers in my office almost every day asking us to start new programs to meet their needs, but we really have to make some tough decisions,” Steven Partridge, vice president of workforce and economic development at NVCC, told the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee on Wednesday at a hearing on what private employers are doing to help fill the skills gaps.

In northern Virginia, those “risk-of-flight” industries include information technology (IT) and other technology-related companies, Partridge said. (Retail and health care businesses serve local populations and are less of a flight risk, he said.) This year alone, the region will need about 20,000 new technology workers just to keep with current demand. However, local colleges will be able to produce just over half of the workers needed to fill those jobs, according to Partridge.

Redirecting funds

Part of the disconnect comes from students, parents and teachers not being aware of careers in IT and other career and technical fields, Partridge said. The other problem is that students often don’t clearly understand the pathway to those careers.

NVCC is tackling that with its Tech Talent Pipeline initiative. It brings together public school systems, postsecondary institutions, nonprofit and public workforce partners, and economic developers to create a system to triple the number of students pursuing technology-related fields of study — such as cyber security and machine learning — over the next decade.

To stretch its resources, NVCC and its partners are realigning various federal, state and local programs to meet the initiative’s goal. For example, the college is rethinking how it uses its federal Perkins funds to increase the number of women who move into IT pathways, Partridge said.

“Prior to this effort, our annual funding, which is only around $400,000, was split among various college and community initiatives, limiting its impact,” he said. “Now, by combining our local and state funding, the impact is magnified as entities work together to close our skills gap.”

Partridge also highlighted the college’s efforts with Lockheed Martin and Amazon Web Services in offering students hands-on learning experiences. The apprenticeship pilot with Amazon, which focuses on military veterans, has been so successful that it is expected to be scaled, Partridge said. NVCC is also exploring using this model with other technology partners, he added.

All shapes and sizes

Workforce development programs are proliferating across the country, said Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America.

“They come in all shapes and sizes – short-term, long-term, at the company, at a college, provided by a community-based organization or a venture-funded ed tech startup,” she said. “The sheer variety of offerings can be hard to take in – truly a thousand flowers blooming.”

Toyota’s Technician Training & Education Network, or T-TEN, was among the programs Jacoby highlighted for the subcommittee. Now in its 10th year, the national program links 36 colleges — mainly community and technical colleges — with local Toyota and Lexus dealerships. Students in the program at Texas State Technical College, for example, spend two semesters at the college and then a semester on the job at a dealership, for which they are paid.

Between 90 percent and 95 percent of those who finish the program land a job at the dealership where they interned. The starting salary is about $30,000 a year, rising to $85,000 and more if technicians continue learning on the job and qualify as master technicians.

Jacoby also detailed a partnership between Spirit Aerosystems and Lenoir Community College in North Carolina. The two developed a non-credit program to prepare mainly older students for aerospace manufacturing jobs.

Since 2010, Lenoir has prepared 922 students to work in aerospace manufacturing, 746 of them hired by Spirit, Jacoby said. More than half of the workforce at the plant has come through the college.

This year, Lenoir launched a new program building on lessons learned from its collaboration with Spirit: a 13-week manufacturing academy backed by several companies in the region.

“This is a growing trend nationwide: students who return to community college to take just one or two specialized courses likely to help them move up on the job, then leave without a credential, wasting no time getting back to work,” Jacoby said.

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