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Insights on successful industry-college partnerships

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Glenn Wintrich (center) of Dell Inc. explains the value of the Convergence Technology Center at Collin College to his company during a roundtable discussion at the recent ATE conference.

Photo: Madeline Patton

​Successful community college collaborations with industry do not just flow from a simple request for help. 

Effective partnerships take time to develop. They require attentive listening and thoughtful discourse during one-on-one conversations and at industry advisory committee meetings, according to business leaders who partner with public two-year colleges housing Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Centers. The centers, funded by the National Science Foundation, are designed to prepare technicians for careers in advanced technology fields.  

At the recent ATE Principal Investigators Conference in Washington, D.C., business leaders from several industries explained how they got involved with ATE Centers and offered advice to community colleges that want to develop internships and place graduates in high-tech jobs. 

What businesses want

Glenn Wintrich, director of the chief innovation office at Dell Inc., advises college educators to “talk about how it [partnering] will help shareholder value.” His partnership with the Convergence Technology Center (CTC) at Collin College (Texas) began more than a decade ago when Dell needed technicians to maintain its then-new voice over Internet protocol products. CTC developed a certificate program that prepared technicians for these jobs within a year of his request.  

An emerging occupation: Data scientists

CTC Principal Investigator Ann Beheler explained that in order to prepare students for emerging information technology jobs across the country, she routinely asks Wintrich and about a dozen other industry advisors about the skills technicians need to know now and in the future. CTC has three quarterly conference calls and an annual, in-person meeting with its industry advisors.

It is then up to the faculty to determine how to teach the skills that industry identifies, Beheler said.

Wintrich said he appreciates CTC's use of "tiger teams" on the industry advisory committee. By having a small group of knowledgeable industry people work on an issue and then bring suggested solutions back to the full committee, work gets done without wasting the time of people who don't have expertise or interest in a particular topic, he said. 

Sell the value of internships

Lee McCollum, coordinator of the Power Careers Program for Duke Energy, said industry can be sold on the value of internships. He has worked on the ATE Scholars program for a decade with the South Carolina Advanced Technological Education Center (SC ATE) at Florence-Darlington Technical College in South Carolina. Progress Energy, which recently merged with Duke Energy, has placed more than 130 student interns at its facilities, paying them $12 an hour and providing scholarships. The utility currently employs 83 of the 86 former interns it has hired full time.

McCollum recruits high school and community college students for the program.

"They [students] can see there is an opportunity to get a good job. I can pay more for a two-year degree than a four-year degree," he said. 

SC ATE's Teaching Technicians ​project offers resources to help educators build effective internship programs and start an industry consortium.

Serving incumbent technicians

Michael Ennis, a manufacturing engineer who manages environmental health and safety at Harris Corp., began partnering with the Florida Advanced Technological Education (FLATE) Center and Brevard Community College (BCC) in nearby Cocoa, Fla., to broaden the skill sets of the company's technical workforce.

"We needed a way to train our employees to a certifiable level so that employees could progress through their career path. And BCC and FLATE helped us do that. FLATE also got us involved with the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council," he said.

In the four years since Harris technicians began taking courses and industry certification tests at BCC, several technicians have advanced to higher-skilled positions and management jobs. Documents proving employees are “certified technicians” or that they have passed BCC courses are added to their records at the company. The accomplishments are considered during annual salary reviews.

As a result of its partnerships with manufacturers and community colleges in Florida, FLATE has built an engineering technician degree program that articulates statewide with stackable, industry-aligned credentials.

Use a checklist

SRI International researchers have developed a conceptual model to show how ATE centers create industry partnerships to address strategic needs. Researchers found that the most effective partnerships engage three types of employees simultaneously:  executive managers, human resource personnel and line managers.

As part of their NSF-ATE-supported study of industry partnerships at five ATE Centers, the researchers developed a checklist to help community colleges and companies navigate the organizational boundaries they typically encounter when they begin partnerships. Navigating these boundaries is critical to the relationships progressing to the point of “partnership capital,” when both industry and community colleges willingly provide resources to attain shared goals, said Raymond McGhee, Jr., senior researcher at SRI’s Center for Policy.

“Hopefully, what that results in are outcomes that affect the students, the classroom. Hopefully, instruction gets changed as a result, it is more aligned with the workforce, preparing those workers so they can enter into the workforce immediately upon graduation, and, hopefully, it also helps faculty,” McGhee said.

Work through challenges 

A successful collaboration with one community college doesn’t guarantee smooth relationships with others, according to Bradley Mason, senior vice president of AMSEC LLC. Case in point, Mason’s relationship with Barbara Murray, principal investigator of the Southeast Maritime and Transportation Center at Tidewater Community College (TCC) in Virginia. Mason and Murray have worked together for several years on the development of certificate and degree curricula for technicians who work at the company's Virginia facilities.

However, when he has contacted colleges near some of the company’s other facilities about starting similar programs, Mason said he has had difficulty even getting a discussion started. He thinks the stalemate may center on the notion that a maritime technician education program would be expensive.

“All we’re asking is that they take an existing curriculum and take a little time and modify it to the point where we can use it to build a program that I’ve kind of outlined for them.  And we’ll even help,” he said.   

When AMSEC’s partnership started with TCC, the college needed someone to write a welding curriculum. AMSEC paid one of its quality assurance managers, who formerly worked as a certified welder and has a bachelor’s degree in education, to write the curriculum with direction from Murray and others at the college.

“Industry will partner with you to help you get it,” Mason said, explaining that he is puzzled by the difficulty he has had trying to replicate an effective community college program that provides technicians with portable credentials that move employees up the wage scale.

AMSEC currently has 45 students enrolled in TCC’s program. BAE, another shipbuilder in the Norfolk area, has more than 100 students in the program.

He said he has employees outside Virginia who would like to enroll in similar programs, but at this point he’s telling them, “Be patient, we’re trying to find someone out there who will sponsor this program.”

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