Community College Grads: Who Needs 'em?

After his first year at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Mitch Jones began to doubt whether medicine was his true calling. Not unlike many his age, he was unsure about his future path. And he worried about the debt he was piling up in student loans.

His mother made a suggestion: Quit Iowa and enroll in the mainframe programming program at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. If he didn't like it, he would be out only about $1,000 for the semester.

Jones took his mother's advice and went on to get his associate of science degree. He took a programming job at WorldCom Inc. (then MCI WorldCom) after graduation. Today, less than a year after he would have earned a bachelor's degree, he has been promoted to business analyst at WorldCom's Colorado Springs office.

Jones, who earns a salary in the mid-$40,000s assessing the potential cost of future mainframe applications, gives credit to the technical and business courses he took at Kirkwood.

"I'm proof that the community college system works," Jones says.

Jones is one of many who are truncating the usual time and cost of getting into the IT workforce by taking a two-year degree. Many are career-switchers trying to pick up skills quickly, often while still working. And many are finding that the lack of a four-year degree doesn't hurt them in the IT job market—employers are simply too desperate for workers.

"It's getting to be exactly the same as a four-year degree. Even the salaries are not different," says Cathie Price, recruiting manager at TechPros in Charlotte, N.C.

At the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., the vast majority of students in the computer information systems degree program won't transfer to a four-year school upon completion, says Steve Mansfield, associate dean of business services. That's a huge change from 10 years ago, when an associate's degree was just a stepping stone to a "real" diploma.

In fact, some students don't even wait the two years to get the associate's degree. Mansfield says that especially during the Y2k crunch, local companies such as Spiegel Inc. in Downers Grove, Ill., were hiring students straight out of programming logic classes.

The average age of community college students is 29, so there are plenty of second-career folks going that route. That appeals to some employers.

"While they're entry-level software engineers, they are not entry-level professionals," says Jeffrey Bohling, senior manager of application development at McCloud USA, a local exchange carrier in Cedar Rapids. "They come in with a lot of business knowledge, and that's the toughest thing to get."

The other thing employers say they like is the way community colleges are tailoring their curricula to meet the specific needs of area companies. Community colleges are eager to serve as job-preparation centers for local labor markets, while four-year schools like to emphasize lifelong skills and well-rounded intellects.

WorldCom looks more toward Kirkwood than to the University of Iowa for employees, says Tim Kregel, software development manager at the telecommunications giant. That's because Kirkwood gladly teaches the Cobol, JCL, DB2, assembler and AS/400 courses crucial for WorldCom employees. Iowa, which is heavily into Java and object-oriented technologies, doesn't even offer a Cobol class.

That kind of tailoring is the norm, not the exception, at community colleges, says Ed Leach, vice president for technology programs at the Mission Viego-based League for Innovation in the Community College (www.league.org.)

At Kirkwood, for example, the faculty for each program listens to comments from an advisory committee made up of local employers and undergoes a review every three years. The review involves research into the local labor market, says John Henik, dean of Kirkwood's business department.

Still, there's no question that a community college program can't teach students as much as a full-scale, four-year program. Students at four-year schools have the time to learn several computing languages and operating systems in some depth. They can also learn much more of the logical and methodological underpinnings behind the technology. And perhaps most important, they can get much more practice on implementation, testing and problem-solving projects than graduates of community colleges can.

"These programs are awfully compact. They try to teach an awful lot in a short time. So we expect to have to teach them some things once they're here," Bohling says.

Because of that, Bohling requests that Kirkwood's object-oriented classes focus on methodology over specific languages. If the student has a firm conceptual grasp of syntax and systems analysis, McCloud can fill in the specifics later, he says.

Kregel's recruits, who are hired primarily for software development and testing positions, also need training after they begin work. "You factor that in—that they might not be full contributors right away," he says. Nevertheless, "every one I've had was able to hit the ground running."

But not every employer sees an associate degree as sufficient.

"It does make a difference," says Gina Cristelli, a recruiting manager at the Denver office of Camden Vale Corp., a high-tech staffing firm in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. While work experience counts more and more, she says, "I've found that most employers still want a four-year degree." It's hard to break the perception of a bachelor's degree as the underpinning of a successful career, she says. Many employers assume that community college graduates will be unable to advance in their careers, she adds.

Lyle Brown, a recruiting manager at EDP Contract Services in Austin, Texas, agrees. He says that while most requisitions he sees specify only an associate's degree as a requirement, only the lower-level jobs are actually open to those with two-year degrees.

"For programmers, network engineers, project managers and database managers, people want at least a bachelor's degree," Brown says.

Even Jones is aware of the ceiling he may encounter. That's why he says he plans to transfer his credits to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he will take classes to complete a bachelor's degree.

Some companies that like to hire community college graduates are now trying to pitch in to help improve the quality their local schools can offer—particularly addressing the common complaint that community colleges lack top-notch equipment for students to use. Lucent Technologies Inc. in Murray Hill, N.J., for example, donated old SPARC machines to DuPage that were too out-of-date for the company to use but better than what the school had in its classrooms.

Leach says many community colleges increase internships to make up for a shortage of equipment. Students are placed at companies that have the servers and software that schools lack. Jones, in fact, began as an intern earning $10 per hour at MCI WorldCom while still at Kirkwood.

Some technology companies are helping by providing curriculum assistance as well as equipment.

Microsoft Corp., for example, provides lesson plans and instructional resources at an online site for community colleges. Three years ago, the company launched a mentor program to train community college faculty in teaching Microsoft software skills. Cisco Systems Inc., Novell Inc. and Oracle Corp. also have strong relationships with two-year schools.

Community college instructors often come directly from the workplace. Students like Jones say faculty members such as Sam Shamsuddin, a network engineer at Lucent who teaches Unix, C++ and Java at DuPage, can provide them with an advantage over tenured university professors who have chosen to pursue academic lives.

Community colleges can also change curricula faster than universities. "They are more fleet of foot," says Diana Carew, manager of community and technical college relations at Microsoft's Education Solutions Group.

For Jones, at least, his mother's advice to switch to community college worked out for the best. She had a feeling it would—she had earned an associate's degree in mainframe programming herself two years earlier.

Bernstein is a freelance writer in Watertown, Mass.

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