Inequity in workforce programming has been historically difficult to address for community colleges trying to meet labor market demands. Even a concentration on placing Black and Latino students into high-demand jobs is not much use when those opportunities sit at the lower end of the wage scale.
Yet, access to life-changing careers remains an essential issue that some two-year institutions are focusing on more closely than ever. Colleges are now launching bilingual cohort programs or intentional ecosystems of access and equity, a series of big swings meant to guide underserved populations into lucrative employment.
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) recently graduated 11 Latino students from its first bilingual cohort in industrial maintenance. Participants completed 15 credits and earned certificates for well-paying maintenance technician jobs, where repairing complex motors, drives and hydraulics can have a direct impact on a company’s daily output.
The “bilingual” portion of the program is what makes it special, notes Jill Thiede, associate dean of trades and engineering technologies at NWTC. Instructors are joined in class by Spanish-speaking students who serve as translators on any technical conversations that may arise.
Cohort members bonded with the translators, enjoying a level of comfort that otherwise may have kept them from class, or even from enrolling in college in the first place, Thiede says. In preparing for the program, staff convened a roundtable discussion with students that revealed language as a major hurdle around enrollment.
“These students say college can be intimidating, especially having to go through registration,” Thiede says. “Every time they talk with someone new, they’re worried if this is someone who’s going to be able to understand them. We wanted to focus on how to make this an inviting opportunity and step students through the process.”
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NWTC’s main campus in Brown County — which includes the Green Bay metropolitan area — has seen a 13-fold increase in its Latino population since 1990, according to census figures. Growing its Latino enrollment remains a priority for NWTC as well, as does filling a job market in need of manufacturing employees with machine and automation skills.
“To fill these jobs, you have to reach out to populations that don’t see manufacturing as part of their career plan,” Thiede says. “Talking to a Latino student advisory group about going into a maintenance position, they said they couldn’t go to college because their English isn’t good enough. We said let’s understand these barriers together.”
Harnessing a ‘great opportunity’
Lucio Prieto, a graduate of the 2022 industrial maintenance cohort, worked 11-12-hour days on the production line at Green Bay meat producer American Foods Group. Long work hours didn’t prevent Prieto from joining the cohort, which he learned about during a NWTC-led meet-and-greet at his church.
“I was out of school for many years already, and it sounded like a great opportunity,” says Prieto, 37. “I was looking for a better pay rate. The skills we learned were the language (of the industry) and how maintenance people talk about certain parts.”
Hands-on experience with equipment was made easier for the Mexico-born Prieto by having a fellow Spanish-speaker at his side. After finishing the program, Prieto had the opportunity to join the maintenance team at American Foods, but chose to stay in human resources and training. He is now helping co-workers take classes at NWTC in the industrial maintenance program, providing encouragement and support for those who, like him, are not native English speakers.
“I always say, if you want to be someone in life, you need to work for it,” Prieto says. “If I can do it, you can do it. Don’t be afraid of the language barrier — that is the only thing you need to know.”
Taking care of the ‘whole student’
Whereas NWTC has ex-students assisting its equity efforts, Miami Dade College (MDC) is expanding work options through a robust network nonprofits, schools, hospitals and local corporations. A system that bridges gaps in Black and Latino enrollment makes perfect sense for a service area dominated by residents of those same backgrounds, notes Malou Harrison, provost and executive vice president at MDC.
“Our population of students mirrors that of Miami-Dade County, and so does the staff and faculty,” Harrison says. “We have a large immigrant population as well, so our programs reflect how we can address those students.”
Similar to many community colleges, most MDC students are heads of households or work full-time jobs. About 67% of attendees are economically disadvantaged, with another 47% living below the poverty line, Harrison says.
Alleviating these problems begins with GED obtainment and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) programming. As students sharpen their language skills, they are also trained as certified nursing assistants or taking stackable courses in logistics, transportation or cloud computing that can lead to college credit certificates and subsequent associate’s or baccalaureate degrees.
Taking care of the “whole student” means placing a priority on life-improving services, Harrison adds. Bus passes, food pantry access and mental health counseling are just a few ways to shepherd a marginalized student population through to completion. MDC also provides $500 stipends for students in support of any emergency housing, health or childcare issues that may arise.
The community connections the college has forged are integrated into this effort, Harrison says.
“When partnering with a philanthropic group, we tell them we have to maintain our teaching standards alongside student support services,” Harrison says. “All of our work with a philanthropic entity has a holistic student service attached to it. It could be a food pantry or an internship, or putting students into work-based learning opportunities.”
MDC works with area healthcare systems and technology companies on career days and job shadowing programs. Conversations with hospitals revealed the dire need for nurses, leading to a CNA program funded by a separate philanthropic organization. Participants can enroll for free, after certification entering an LPN course that can eventually be applied to an associate degree in nursing.
Though such holistic efforts are nothing new in higher ed, bringing employers and nonprofits into the fold early on is having immediate benefits, Harrison says.
“We want to train students for the skills and learning outcomes that employers want,” Harrison says. “It’s about getting those folks fully invested, because we want our students to be hired at the end of the training program.”