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ATE connects employers with needed technicians

​Justin Patten, operations manager at Hysitron, shares his company's experiences with Bryant Lekanader (far left) and other Nano-Link graduates. Johann Garcia (center) and Jerry Hiatt, chief technology officer at BHI Energy, also joined the panel. 
Photo: ​James Tkatch

​Partnerships developed between community colleges participating in the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program and industry have produced great job connections for students.

“You want to change jobs, you want to find a career, you want to get into the industry you want, go to [an] ATE program,” is the message Keqin Gregg thinks should appear constantly in the media.

At the 2013 ATE Principal Investigators Conference in Washington, D.C., Gregg and two other employers explained the attributes of ATE that helped them find good employees. The panelists included the ATE program graduates that they hired.

The employers suggested that all community college educators follow ATE’s lead and engage industry more often by asking employers for facility tours; inviting them to participate on advisory panels and at career day events; and hiring industry people to teach as adjunct faculty.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) created ATE 20 years ago to develop highly qualified technicians for industries important to the nation's economy and security. The 1992 Scientific and Advanced Technology Act, the impetus for ATE, gave faculty of associate degree-granting institutions leadership roles in developing innovative technician education programs. The American Association of Community Colleges convenes the ATE conference with NSF support.

A workforce in training

Gregg, manager of Genotox Laboratories, has hired several students from the biotechnology classes she teaches at the biotechnology department at Austin Community College (ACC) in Texas. ACC is a regional center for Bio-Link, the National ATE Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences at the City College of San Francisco. Gregg, who earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton University and did post-doctoral research at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, said ACC’s high-end equipment and its expert faculty make it a “hidden treasure.”

At the right place before the right time

Forty percent of Genotox's employees are former ACC students whose strengths, Gregg said, match the start-up company’s needs. For instance, she hired the detail-oriented Wenjing “Melanie” Guo as a genetics analyst. Guo also writes the standard operation procedures for equipment used at the physician-owned laboratory. Another of her former biotech students with an outgoing personality handles the company's marketing.

Guo enrolled in the biotechnology advanced technical certificate program at ACC after a yearlong unsuccessful search for a job upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from UT.

At ACC, Guo said she learned lab techniques and how to present scientific information. Both skill sets helped her get the job at Genotox. She thinks other four-year college graduates should enroll in ATE programs at community colleges to learn employability skills.

Networking at industry events

Justin Patten, operations manager at Hysitron Inc., said talking with students at industry conferences is one of the benefits of serving on the Dakota County Technical College (DCTC) Nanoscience Technology Industry Advisory Board. ATE programs often provide scholarships for students to attend industry conferences. 

Patten praised DCTC graduate Bryant Lekander’s work in the company’s quality control department and Nano-Link as a great asset for the company that makes nanomechanical instruments. Nano-Link is the Midwest Regional Center for Nanotechnology Education based at DCTC in Minnesota.

Lekander now oversees calibration of the devices Hysitron makes. He also often interacts with the scientists, researchers and engineers who work with the company's customers. As a student, Lekander helped develop and test Nano-Link’s curriculum for faculty professional development.

“Prior to this program, we were searching through electronics programs, engineering programs. It is hard to find qualified technician-level employees,” Patten said. “Since then, we’ve hired Bryant as well as a number of other employees (who graduated from DCTC) who have really integrated well with our company. The skills that they’ve learned, I believe, have really translated well at our company and given them a great platform to start from.”

Lekander agrees. With the overview of nanotechnology and hands-on nanoscience skills from DCTC, Lekander said he is prepared for “continuously learning about what you can do, how you can help, and what you can do to make the product and techniques work better for the researchers and academics.”

Through Internships

Johann Garcia was hired as a junior radiation protection technician by Bartlett Nuclear, Inc., after completing a paid internship at Florida Power & Light’s St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant. Internships are part of the associate degree nuclear technician education program at Indian River State College (IRSC). The college hosts the Regional Center for Nuclear Education and Training (RCNET), an ATE center. Bartlett Nuclear, a subsidiary of BHI Energy, supplies radiation safety and protection personnel to commercial nuclear power facilities in the U.S. 

Going hands on at a power plant

The high wages that nuclear technicians earn attracted Garcia to the IRSC program. He explained during a panel discussion at the ATE conference that earning a good income is important for him to help his parents, who emigrated from Colombia when he was 10.

Before he enrolled in the nuclear technician program, Garcia said he did not realize a nuclear power plant provided electricity to the region where he lived in Florida. He now plans to climb the career ladder within the commercial nuclear industry and eventually earn additional academic degrees. 

Jerry Hiatt, chief technical officer of BHI Energy, said the nuclear industry finds community colleges’ flexibility helpful. RCNET’s collaboration with an industry association on a nationwide curriculum means its 42 college affiliates are working toward uniform curricula. Their curriculum revisions sometimes occur as quickly as the semester after a change occurs in the industry.