Colleges join forces to train aerospace workers

A robotics lab at El Camino College. (Photo: ECC)

Two community colleges – Red Rocks in Colorado and El Camino in California – have formed a partnership to create a Space, Cyber & Supply Talent Development Center.

The partnership will support workforce training programs leading to jobs in aerospace and other STEM fields. Both colleges are located in major aerospace hubs and have a strong track record in aligning educational programs with jobs.

The program, which will begin in fall 2021, will adapt courses to the needs of Northrop Grumman, which has major facilities in both communities, and other related companies.

Students will enter a pathway that includes workforce training and apprenticeships that will put them in line for a family-supporting career in the space industry.

The two colleges have three major goals for the collaboration:

  • Establish a new economic and workforce development educational effort focused on each institution’s strengths in aerospace and supply chain training.
  • Share specific company connections to further expand opportunities and placements.
  • Support reciprocity in instruction and share best practices.

Support for apprenticeships

The programs included in the partnership cover certificates, associate degrees, noncredit certifications, apprenticeships, and in the case of Red Rocks Community College (RRCC), a bachelor’s degree program in security software development.

Industry is not contributing funds to this effort, but it is supporting the colleges through apprenticeships and enrollment of their employees in workforce programs.

At El Camino College (ECC), the new initiative will build from an existing workforce and apprenticeship program that has so far helped train more than 6,600 people for high-wage aerospace jobs over the last eight years.

ECC President Dena Maloney says the partnership came about as college leaders realized the area around RRCC has a similar economic base, so, “wouldn’t it make sense to partner and share a curriculum?” Both communities have large Northrup Grumman facilities and similar workforce demands.

ECC’s workforce development programs have long focused on the aerospace industry, Maloney says.

“We felt many jobs may not come back after COVID, and yet we have this sector we need to support,” she says.

A growing industry

In the Los Angeles area, the aerospace industry employs about 70,000 people, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation. As other industries experienced massive layoffs during the pandemic, aerospace industries in the region added approximately 1,600 jobs between February and June.

ECC is near Los Angeles Air Force Base, which houses the headquarters of the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

The partnership will take advantage of the boom in commercial satellite launches and manned space flights, including the SpaceX company’s successful mission to send two astronauts to the International Space Station.

“We already have a core set of programs but we recognize the space industry is changing rapidly; it’s becoming much more entrepreneurial. So we probably need to be a little more strategic,” Maloney says.

Cybersecurity for space

For RRCC, the partnership was a natural outgrowth of its cybersecurity programs, says President Michele Haney.

RRCC has been designated as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense by the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The school is the only community college with a cybersecurity team that competed at the national level.

The cybersecurity sector is expected to have 3.5 million unfilled jobs next year, including many in the aerospace sector, according to Cybersecurity Ventures.

“Our goal to make students employable,” Haney says. “That’s our bottom line.”

Students in Red Rocks Community College’s cybersecurity program can look forward to career opportunities in the aerospace industry. (Photo: RRCC)

The partnership will help build a talent pool ready to serve the new headquarters for the U.S. Space Force, which is currently located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

The aerospace field has a lot of engineers with advanced degrees, Haney notes. They’re looking for people with technical expertise, and that’s where community colleges are building a pipeline.

“In Colorado, the aerospace industry has many companies looking for technical support. We’re at the right place and the right time and we need to do it now,” she says.

“At Red Rocks, we have the first registered apprenticeship in cybersecurity in the state of Colorado through Northrop Grumman. We look to bring that expertise to our collaboration with El Camino,” Haney says. “We share an urgency to provide workplace-relevant experience so that students are prepared for new jobs that will ultimately support our economic recovery.”

“Many companies let people go during this period of time,” Haney added. “Everybody is downsizing, but the apprenticeships are not.”

A national model

“America’s leadership in space is vitally important to the nation’s future and critically depends on growing our aerospace workforce, with the needed STEM skills. Community colleges play an important role in talent development,” says Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Hamel, a former member of the RRCC Foundation board of directors and the former commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

Innovation, commercial investment and “unconventional ways of doing business” drives the aerospace industry now, says Hamel, who will work to guide the new education program.

“It is important for the federal government and Congress to invest in education and job training to ensure our continued leadership in space,” Hamel says. “By working together, Red Rocks and El Camino are advancing an ambitious plan that could serve as a national model.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.