September 24, 2018
Special Series: Building Connecticut's Workforce Pipeline

CT colleges, high schools tighten bonds with employers to feed jobs pipeline

HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
Faculty and students interact during a computer numerical controlled course at Goodwin College. Goodwin and EDAC Technologies in Cheshire have partnered on a program to groom future manufacturing workers.

Kiley Russell's story was all too familiar.

In her mid-20s, with some college experience and lots of student-loan debt, Russell spent time waitressing and bartending while she searched for a rewarding career she could sink her teeth into.

She went back to school last year, but rather than study anthropology or sociology like she had at Johnson and Wales and Coastal Carolina universities, she signed up for a two-semester manufacturing program at Goodwin College in East Hartford. The course of study included a pathway to employment with Cheshire precision aerospace components manufacturer EDAC Technologies, which provides input into the curriculum.

After completing the program July 27, Russell started working for EDAC full time as a quality inspector, clocking about 50 hours per week, at a starting pay rate of $20 per hour.

"The goal is to move up through the ranks as quickly as possible," Russell said.

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The linkage between Goodwin College and EDAC Technologies isn't wholly unique in Connecticut. In recent years, educational institutions, including technical high schools, community or other colleges and four-year universities, have adopted programs specifically geared toward filling needs and skills in demand among Connecticut employers.

It's a mutually beneficial relationship: schools, many of which are facing enrollment pressures, can offer programming with high job-placement rates, while companies get a workforce with the exact skills they want at an entry-level salary. And the partnerships aren't just happening in the manufacturing sector, although it's more common there because of the high demand for jobs.

In fields ranging from information technology and health care to insurance and even history, Connecticut companies are helping schools formulate coursework they want future employees to know. Some partnerships offer a direct pipeline to employment, while others aim to send off graduates with in-demand skills.

"It's important to understand (industry) needs … and retool our programs so we can help students retool their skills for the needs of employers," said Matt Fleury, chairman of Connecticut's Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees the state's four state universities and community colleges.

The most significant changes are occurring at community colleges, which have evolved into workforce-development engines, focused on getting students degrees or certificates that lead to specific jobs. In fact, the number of short, vocational credentials earned by students at public community colleges around the country more than doubled between 2000 and 2012.

Community colleges in Connecticut currently offer 391 certificate programs, according to state data.

Goodwin, a private, not-for-profit college that offers certificates, and two- to four-year degree programs, and EDAC started their partnership last November, said Cliff Thermer, the school's assistant vice president for strategy and business development. It's an offshoot of a 22.5-week computer numerical control (CNC) machining, metrology and manufacturing technology certificate program, which teaches students about concepts like lean manufacturing, and skills, including the ability to read blueprints.

The program's first seven weeks or so focus on classroom and lab learning to introduce students to the basic concepts of CNC manufacturing like technical drawing, manufacturing mathematics and machine safety. EDAC recruiters visit during this time to help teach and observe students, and eventually interview those who qualify for the next step.

Students chosen by EDAC are then paid full-time salaries — about $400 per week — to work part time at the company while they finish their studies. Students who complete the program and are deemed a good employment fit are hired for a full-time job starting at $20 per hour.

"This thing turns into a 10-to 12-week interview process," said Dave Russell, EDAC's director of Next Gen Programs. "We get a good look at you, and you get a good look at us."

Russell knows what it's like for students going through the Goodwin program. He started in manufacturing through an apprenticeship at Pratt & Whitney in 1970, and was responsible for all manufacturing at the jet-engine maker's Middletown location for a decade.

Russell oversees for EDAC similar programs at Asnuntuck, Manchester and Naugatuck Valley community colleges. His duties include quarterly meetings with faculty so he can share with department heads what parts of their curriculum are proving beneficial to EDAC, and what parts need fine-tuning.

That's an important aspect, he said, because the program amounts to a major investment for EDAC. It typically costs the company between $10,000 and $12,000 per pupil, which includes salary and benefits, tuition reimbursement and a sign-on bonus. Last year, EDAC hired 35 students who completed the program at four different colleges. This year his niece, Kiley Russell, was among the program's graduates hired upon completion.

"It's not a cheap investment on the part of EDAC, by any means," Dave Russell said. "When we launched this, we took a risk."

And school officials can tout high employment-placement rates among program graduates, said Thermer. So far, all seven Goodwin College students accepted to EDAC's program were hired there.

"We built and tailored a program based on what [industry] needs are, and now we're beginning to recruit [students looking for work] in that industry," Thermer said.

IT skills

Workforce-development partnerships between schools and businesses are expansive across Connecticut's community college system, said Karen Wosczyna-Birch, executive director of Connecticut State Colleges & Universities' College of Technology. In addition to a one-year aerospace-focused manufacturing program offered at seven schools that work with industry professionals in formulating curricula, Norwalk Community College has partnered with IBM on a program teaching IT job skills, Wosczyna-Birch said.

But students begin the Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA) program in high school, and are able to earn their associate degree in computer science by the time they graduate.

NECA is part of the P-TECH model, which the IBM Foundation created. It's a partnership between IBM, Norwalk Community College and Norwalk High School, which hosts the program. Students go through a rigorous curriculum with college coursework in subjects like software engineering and web development, in addition to high school-level work, according to IBM.

Other industry partnerships exist beyond the college level. Connecticut Technical High School System officials meet with representatives of various industries to find out what they should be teaching.

Faculty for every trade taught in Connecticut's 17 technical high schools are required twice a year to meet with a career technical education advisory committee, which includes representatives of companies across the state, said Jeffrey Wihbey, superintendent of the Technical High School System.

"It's all about making sure we're asking them the right questions," Wihbey said. "What do you want us to be producing for you in terms of workers?"

Teachers take curriculum cues from these industries and learn about "soft skills" students are missing, Wihbey said, like showing up on time, looking people in the eye and putting away phones at work

Broader education

Peter Diplock, assistant vice provost at UConn's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, said engaging with industry is important, but he pushes back on the notion that professional programs should be solely focused on industry-specific skills.

UConn is responsive to industry needs in formulating curricula — especially in the schools of business, engineering and nursing — but students also need to learn different skills and how to think on their feet.

That's the value of a broader education offered by traditional four-year universities.

UConn's different schools and departments have dozens of advisory boards from which university officials continually learn about the most current practices in their respective industries, and adjust their teaching accordingly, Diplock said. However, the most current skills don't necessarily dictate curricula.

"Techniques come and go," Diplock said. "The real leaders in an area are going to know why things exist the way they do."

That's not to say UConn doesn't work closely with industry.

UConn's School of Engineering, for example, last spring introduced the Navy STEM program, with an inaugural class of about 70 students. The course of study focuses specifically on engineering for the naval industry, said Stephanie Wanne, who runs the program.

Next year, the program will establish deeper ties with area naval businesses, said associate dean of engineering Michael Accorsi. Industry players including Electric Boat and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center will work with UConn in assigning senior-year engineering projects, and will advise students as they work on them.

"It serves multiple purposes," Accorsi said. "It allows the companies to interact with our students, and potentially hire them. It also engages our faculty with industry to understand their problems, which gets communication going between our faculty and the companies."

Read more

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