Community Colleges Get Real

After years of mixed reviews, some two-year IT programs are getting a reality check through strong ties to area businesses.

Alan Carter faced a daunting challenge when he took over the network technology program at Green River Community College early last year. The Auburn, Wash.-based school had not updated to Windows Server 2003, and its curriculum was outdated. Enrollment in the program had shrunk to only four students. "It was in disarray, and there was a huge disconnect" between the school's program and local employers, says Carter, an IT instructor. "And I think the problem was more on our side than on the employers' side."

As he revamped the program, Carter sought help from local IT hiring executives and found them very receptive. "Some are incredibly busy, but they said, 'Yeah, I'll help. I need to hire those people,'" he says.

The relationship between IT employers and community colleges is sometimes a rocky one. Squeezed between private technical schools and four-year universities, many two-year programs have seen enrollment drop sharply since 2000. Serious communication gaps hamper cooperation between industry and many community college IT programs, according to an ongoing two-year study by the National Workforce Center for Emerging Technologies (NWCET). The study, called "Strengthening Connections," seeks to bridge those gaps by detailing employer perceptions of community college IT graduates and identifying exemplary education-employer partnerships.

In general, employers perceive community college graduates as technically skilled but not well-rounded enough, says Sandra Mikolaski, the NWCET's associate director. "They don't have the life experiences or the problem-solving skills employers are looking for," she says. Employers are also frustrated with community college IT training programs because they seem so bureaucratic. "[Employers] don't understand why change takes so much longer than in business, and they start to think the colleges aren't listening," Mikolaski says.

But some community colleges are listening, and in response to advisers' input, they are overhauling their career-related curricula, developing new courses more quickly and enhancing internship opportunities for students.

Green River Starts Over

After Carter began redesigning Green River's IT program from scratch, he held a daylong session with IT professionals in Auburn. They informed Carter that there was a shortage of skills in security and networking infrastructure. They also told him to put less emphasis on programming and that they needed IT generalists, not just technicians trained only in Microsoft Corp. technology.

After listing critical areas of knowledge for job categories that were in demand, such as network administration and security analysis, the team mapped Green River courses that could help prepare students for the job-category tasks. They developed a grid of eight competencies: business, communication, analysis, teamwork, operating system management, applications management, security and research. For each competency, they sought to determine whether the learning should take place in the classroom or through internships.

"It was also hammered home to me that we need to focus on soft skills," Carter says, so besides courses in networking, programming, databases and operating systems, students are now required to take classes in public speaking, customer service, project management and user support.

"I told Alan we can't afford to hire people who have only technical skills," says Don Alishio, a network engineering manager at The Boeing Co. who was part of the group. "They have to have business and planning skills and financial awareness," he says, adding that student interns who appear hungry to learn stand out to employers.

The session helped the college redesign its networking associate's degree and create specialized certificate programs. Alishio says he was impressed with the turnaround time on the new curriculum. "We held those meetings in March, and they were offering the new courses by September," he says. "That's fast. And the process of change in curriculum previously had been very slow."

Breaking Up at Bunker Hill

Two years ago, administrators at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston made a radical change. To focus on emerging technologies, they split off the school's business- and industry-focused IT program from the traditional computer IT program. "I think we're the first community college in the country to divide its IT program in two," says Andrea Lyons, chairwoman of the IT for Business and Industry program. "We realized we had to respond more quickly to the needs of business. We had to be able to add and drop classes and even whole programs much faster."

To get that rapid turnaround, Lyons says, each area of study needed its own industry advisory board, instead of having just one board for the whole IT department, as is customary. "Our networking program was not going to get reactions on what is cutting-edge from a broad-ranging board that included programming, database and Web development people," she says.

The new advisory boards can give focused advice. For example, when Lyons recently questioned whether to drop a NetWare course in favor of one on Linux, she had access to the views of six executives in local networking companies. Lyons, who has been teaching at Bunker Hill for nine years, says she depends on these newly formed boards to keep her up to date.

"Security and IP communications have really come to the forefront in networking recently," says Dave Hart, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Networked Information Systems LLC in Woburn, Mass., and one of Lyons' industry advisers. "How are you going to be aware of that if you've been out of the workforce nine years and spend all day teaching? That's why I think it's a brilliant move on her part to reach out to the local business community. After all, we're her customers. I'm relying on those students to help make my company better."

Another of Lyons' advisers is former student Dawn Maxey, who graduated from the networking program in 2000 and is now a network technician at Boston law firm Brown Rudnick Berlack Israels LLP. Maxey says that as a student, she found the curriculum at Bunker Hill relevant enough, but an internship she did was even more important. "Getting the hands-on experience is crucial," she says, adding that the internship and her job in Bunker Hill's computer lab seemed to weigh more heavily with employers than her technical skills.

Lyons' focus now is on getting Hart, Maxey and other advisers to help bolster the internship program, which she says should provide the combination of coursework and training employers tell her they're looking for.

A robust internship program is one of the most valuable aspects of a community college education, but building such a program is one of the toughest assignments facing people in Lyons' position, says the NWCET's Mikolaski. "Setting them up is a massive task," she says, "so it requires the involvement of CEOs, college presidents and deans to commit the resources to sustain them."

Keeping community college courses relevant is "always going to be a challenge because the technology changes so rapidly that it's tough to anticipate employers' needs," says Arlene Peterson, a senior data network analyst at Northwest Airlines Corp. in Eagan, Minn.

Northwest doesn't have much turnover in IT and doesn't hire many community college graduates, yet it considers Inver Hills Community College a key training partner for its internal IT staff. The airline is one of eight companies that have joined with the Inver Grove Heights, Minn.-based college to identify common needs in IT training and seek state grant funding so that Inver Hills can purchase equipment and develop curricula.

The terms of the state funding require that employers monitor the progress of training and also contribute cash or in-kind donations to help pay for it. In recent months, Northwest employees have attended Inver Hills courses on subjects such as security, telephony and wireless technologies. Every four months during the grant cycle, the state requires employers to fill out forms on the shortcomings and strengths of the training.

Peterson, who leads a workgroup of nine employees supporting IP routers and switches at Northwest, says the college has been very responsive to suggestions. "Also, the employees have found it bene-ficial," she says. "They are developing a whole new skill set, and they are skills Northwest is going to need."

Establishing a Feedback Loop

The grant-writing process has created a feedback loop in which employers can be in regular contact, not only about how the training is going, but also about upcoming business needs, says Jim Mc-Cormick, manager of IT training programs at Inver Hills. Based on strong employer interest, his next grant proposal involves developing a comprehensive IP telephony program.

McCormick also solicits input on upcoming courses' content. "We were considering offering two Cisco IP telephony classes, but one employer asked about including Avaya or Nortel equipment, so we have to think about adding those," he says. "They also suggested IP video training."

McCormick says that while it's crucial to upgrade the skills of people in the workforce, it's also important for students who don't have jobs yet to hear directly from employers. "We do regular hiring fairs," he says, "and representatives from six IT organizations make presentations to students about what kinds of skills they are currently looking for."

Another feedback mechanism comes from the students themselves. Brian Cullen, another senior network analyst at Northwest, has taken classes at Inver Hills in Cisco and radio frequency technologies. "I'm always looking for ways to upgrade my skill levels," he says. "This gave me a chance to see some protocols I didn't work with on a day-to-day basis to see if they might be useful someday."

Cullen was pleased with the quality of the curriculum and instruction but notes that it's crucial that colleges stay current on the technologies employers are using. "I think Inver Hills gets that feedback," he says, "both from the employees of the companies in the grant program and from companies coming to campus to interview prospective students."

Raths is a freelance business writer in Portland, Maine.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon