07/08/07 — WCC puts emphasis on tech training

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WCC puts emphasis on tech training

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 8, 2007 2:01 AM

Wayne Community College is joining forces with other educators and the business community to make sure that skilled workers like plumbers and electricians don't become an endangered species.

As many technical workers near retirement age, educators and business leaders say finding the next generation of workers is becoming more and more difficult.

College officials say it's going to take a collaborative effort between educators and the business community to entice students into some of the technical fields.

Ron Prince is division head of applied technology, which includes agricultural and natural resources, automotive, aviation, engineering and mechanical studies, as well as air conditioning, refrigeration and welding. Not always the most popular choices for a fledgling teen, he said.

Perception is part of the problem, said Dr. Kay Albertson, who just assumed the reigns as Wayne Community's president. Meetings with human resources and business leaders in recent years have shown the No. 1 qualification needed in this information age is a college education, even for the vocational fields.

Many, however, equate college with white collar professions like law and medicine, she said, "and we all know that everyone can't do that, isn't going to do that."

Without a shift in thinking, Dr. Albertson said soon some professions might not be able to fill new openings.

"(I have heard that) in the very near future the plumber is going to make nearly as much money as a physician, and they're going to be hard to find," she said.

That doesn't make it easy to convince a 17-year-old to choose a career in an applied technology field.

"What we have got to do is get the message to the family members," Dr. Albertson said.

Many parents aren't sure they want their children in manufacturing or other field that involves a skill rather than a formal degree.

What they don't know, Dr. Allbertson said, is that these professions actually require specialized training and can lead to a college degree -- and they offer opportunity.

"The difference is now to work on the manufacturing floor you have to work on a computer and have other skills," she said. "There are real professions with benefits and a future. They can move into management."

Getting the word out about job possibilities is the key to changing a mindset, Prince said.

In some cases, he said, "you can go into a technical program and come out after a year or two and go to work, starting off at $35,000-40,000 a year."

Hundreds of jobs are just waiting to be snapped up, Dr. Albertson said. She hears it all the time.

"We're having lots of businesses tell us they'll hire anyone we send them. We're working with companies that are saying, 'Send us everybody.' The need is there," she said.

In fact, in some areas of vocational training, it's hard to graduate students because they're hired before completing the program.

"Head counts are low because we train them, and they're gone, so we constantly have on our recruiting shoes," Dr. Albertson said. "I don't feel badly when some of our numbers are lower in the vocational areas because those are not students that dropped out. Those are students that were hired."

In areas like aviation, despite ongoing fluctuations in numbers over the years, once students acquire training needed for licensure or certification, many depart before receiving a diploma.

"But 90 percent of them do come back and get their associate degree," Prince said.

That is also becoming true of students with advanced degrees or years of work experience.

"More and more four-year graduates are actually coming back to the community college to get skill sets," Dr. Albertson said. "We have probably 50 to 60 percent of our nursing students that already have a BS (degree)."

Some of the trend can be attributed to an appeal for the more mature person who has already worked for a number of years, Dr. Albertson said, especially true of the baby boomer generation. There is increasing interest in having a second career, oftentimes in areas much different than what they have done in the past.

"We can't just market to young folks," she said. "We need now to target our retiring people who bring with them the work ethic, which you can't really teach, and who just want to do something to continue to be a viable, contributing person."

At 17 or 18 years old, it is hard to see the bigger picture, she said. Educators can help bridge that gap.

"We have some really good things going on now in Wayne County," she said. "We don't have everything in place, but I think the public schools have for awhile now been talking about career pathways, including not only all the basics, but also the opportunity to take courses in various career pathways that give a taste of the business world, or the allied health world or the automotive field."

Creating a competitive market in response to the cry for skilled trades people is an important step, Dr. Albertson said, one that will take a collaborative effort.

"It's not just an educational issue. It's also a business issue," she said. "That's why we all have to work together. Business and industry can't just blame the educational system for not producing the workers. ... The 'speak' has always got to be there. People have to feel that that training is going to benefit them."