Infrastructure legislation would pave way for colleges’ programs

Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana provides courses not only around traditional infrastructure needs like construction and roads but also data-driven broadband communications and automotive skills. (Photo: Ivy Tech)

Four years ago, the Trump administration touted soon-to-arrive $1 trillion bipartisan legislation that would add to and improve upon the nation’s roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure. The legislation never materialized. But the need to revamp the nation’s infrastructure is more critical than ever.

As a result, infrastructure has again become part of the conversation during the first 100 days of the Biden administration. The $2 trillion American Jobs Plan goes beyond the Trump vision of infrastructure to include not only roads, bridges and ports but also broadband, high-speed rail, energy-efficient building, electric car charging stations and even elder care.

Whether an infrastructure bill becomes law during this administration — it is pricey and ambitious — remains to be seen. But if it does pass this time, community colleges are once again in line to benefit in two ways: students in existing infrastructure-related programs will have a broader array of career opportunities, and two-year colleges themselves will be able to expand their current offerings and perhaps add new ones to meet emerging needs.

“Community colleges, as always, are available for the workforce that’s going to be necessary,” said John Avendano, president of Florida State College at Jacksonville. “Infrastructure, be it roads and bridges or other aspects, are a skill set that many schools have available to provide that critical workforce. Related to that is the technology aspect … civil engineers, design positions, AutoCAD, things of that nature. We’ll be able to provide the vast majority of the skilled workforce needed in a variety of different areas.”

Related articles: ‘Biden’s infrastructure plan includes billions for two-year colleges‘ and ‘Job training needs for Biden’s infrastructure plan

Linda Cuadra, professor of business and logistics at Tacoma Community College in (Washington), notes the U.S. has under-invested in infrastructure for some time.

“It will be interesting to see what they will plan on spending, and where,” she said. “In a world where China is beating the pants off everybody with transportation, it’s highlighted the need for infrastructure investment in the U.S.”

The soon-to-be 19-campus Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana hopes to see infrastructure legislation passed, said President Sue Ellspermann.

“It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the states, and it sets up Indiana and the U.S. to compete for the future,” she said. “We as community colleges will lean into areas like the Internet of things, smart manufacturing and green energy. We will need help making sure we have the infrastructure to be able to train in those areas and update our equipment. We hope some of that is covered in an infrastructure bill.”

Gearing up for diesel

Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama, has used funds from the earlier rounds of stimulus money to launch a virtual reality (VR) training program to train students for diesel technology jobs through its Diesel by Distance program. President Vicki Karolewics said the college was fortunate to receive the funding, which it will use to expand the use of VR to other programs, as well.

“We were networking with trucking companies all across the state, and they were talking about a severe shortage of workers,” she said. “The crisis they are experiencing is in diesel technicians. I recognized that as a problem that we had to be part of solving, and I committed to them that we would develop a diesel program for rural Alabama. The goal is to develop a hybrid model, and we’re working hard to develop apprenticeships.”

Wallace State Community College has launched a virtual reality training program for its diesel technology students. (Photo: WSCC)

Karolewics expects to use the VR technology to develop lab competencies with work-based learning partners.

“We do have some federal stimulus funding that we are planning to use to expand this model with other programs,” she said. “It’s very expensive. We can’t do it without external funding.”

If additional funding comes through the infrastructure bill, Karolewics would like to develop a facility that co-locates existing programs like welding, machine tool technology, tool-and-die, and CNC under one roof rather than scattered around campus in five locations. In a county with 2.2% unemployment, situated in the middle of Alabama’s “automotive corridor,” employers can’t fill all the modern manufacturing positions they need, she said.

“Now that we have Nissan Mazda in (nearby) Huntsville, we need to expand,” Karolewics said. “We have a partnership with Mercedes, a tech co-op program, and we would be able to expand that program in automotive technology — engineering technologies, industrial electronics, mechatronics. Those are my targeted programs for funds through the infrastructure bill.”

Global logistics

The logistics program at Tacoma Community College prepares students to move beyond the warehouse floor and into the project management side in areas like importing and exporting, transportation and distribution, and security and other areas. Students gain an understanding of inter-modalism and go to work for employers like trucking and maritime companies.

Tacoma has a port that’s not well-supported by the local roadway system, although it does have the rare advantage of rail lines that come down to the docks.

“That adds to the interest of the students,” Cuadra said. “They can see all the different modes coming together.”

Cuadra wants to see how much investment ports get in a federal infrastructure package, given that they are almost all public-private partnerships: “They do get a fair amount of private investment. They do depend on federal and state dollars, as well.”

In class, Cuadra could imagine the infrastructure plan itself providing some lessons for students.

“When we get more detail, I would take part of the plan directed to roads, trucking, ports, airports, and use that as guided, structured reading (in a class) on how to read government documents, and how it translates down to the local level,” she said. In addition, she would talk about, “How do you get the money from the government, and how do you leverage that to make meaningful improvements in the infrastructure in your area?”

With part of the money going to airports, that could impact a class project in which students are assigned an airport somewhere around the world and look at the list of improvements the facility has planned.

“How does that translate all the way through the logistics system?” Cuadra said. “Getting people through the airport, to the plane, taking off — what does it do to the capacity of the whole system?”

Autonomous vehicles

Florida State College at Jacksonville has a strong program in transportation and logistics that covers supply chain management and leads to opportunities in areas like warehousing and truck-driving, Avendano said. The college has signed an agreement with the Jacksonville Transit Authority to create a program to develop diagnostic skills, handle normal service issues and operate autonomous vehicles for use in the city’s downtown.

“We are incorporating as we speak the curriculum for delivering the skill sets necessary,” he said. “We’re moving in automotive technology from the combustion engine, to electronic vehicles and autonomous vehicles. All the end users for this infrastructure will be part of the workforce skill sets that we’ll be delivering. GPS, as it continues to develop, is something we would be providing, in the areas of IT and programming that we see needed there.”

Florida State College at Jacksonville signs an MOU with the Jacksonville Transit Authority. (Photo: FSCJ)

A gamut of possibilities

Ivy Tech in Indiana recently compiled a 3½-page list of programs that “might have some level of applicability” if infrastructure legislation passes, according to Chris Lowery, senior vice president. Ivy Tech provides courses not only around traditional infrastructure needs like roads and sewers but also data-driven broadband communications and automotive skills “venturing into electronic and hybrid,” he said. “We’re an automotive center; we have been for a century.”

While Indiana might not be thought of as a tech hub, the state enjoys a growing tech center near Indianapolis, with companies like Salesforce and Infosys establishing a presence, and Ivy Tech has been training workers for fields like teledata technicians, industrial maintenance and general information technology, Ellspermann said. They develop MOUs with companies, which “identify employees they would like to promote” and then enroll them in programs. “It’s a very concierge approach to how we work with a student,” she added.

Ivy Tech sees people coming from such programs with an average wage increase of $6,800, which Lowery noted “starts to move individuals from getting by, to entering the middle class.” The college also has increased focus on underrepresented populations, including people of color, which converges with the needs of employers thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion, he said.

To further expand its student population, Ivy Tech works with the state’s corrections department to bring “high-wage, high-demand credentials that allow (those incarcerated) to be employed immediately upon completion and reduce recidivism,” Ellspermann said. It also worked closely with about 425 high schools across the state to provide dual-credit programs.

“They’re leaving high school with the ability to land one of those good jobs,” Ellspermann said. “Infrastructure is certainly one of those categories.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.