• United States

Community minded curriculum

News Analysis
Jan 06, 20034 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsIT Skills

Two IT executives share why community colleges are tops for entry-level network technicians.

What do businessman/politician Ross Perot, actor Dustin Hoffman and Black and Decker Chairman and CEO Nolan Archibald have in common? They are alumni of community colleges – publicly funded higher education establishments that provide vocational training and associate degree programs to students regardless of wealth, heritage or previous academic experience.

Such learning facilities give students practical training to enter the IT field. “Community colleges are good at providing work-ready skills. Students receive training to do entry-level jobs and are able to move into higher positions,” says Jerry Bunce, IT education relationship manager at aviation company Boeing.

George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, says these institutions are becoming the new graduate school. For instance, 28% of the current 6 million noncredit students – those not studying for credit towards a university – already hold bachelor degrees. Nearly half of all students work full time.

According to Boggs, community colleges have seen double-digit increases in enrollment over last fall, although he could not provide exact figures. “Some students may be out of work and want to pick up new skills,” he says.

Boggs says community colleges aim to provide students with not only technical ability, but also communications skills such as writing reports and giving presentations. This knowledge would make candidates more desirable to employers.

David Luchtel, CIO at Pemco Insurance in Seattle, agrees. “When the job market heats up, most kids will need to have degrees to get high-paid jobs. But it is also very important to have interpersonal skills.”

One college that has taken that notion to heart is Bellevue Community College (BCC) in Washington, which offers an associate in arts degree in IT and network support. An advisory board consisting of seven local companies, including Boeing and Pemco, support the college.

The advisory board meets three times per year to ensure BCC’s programs help to produce graduates with work-ready skills. As such, BCC’s students are taught “business survival” skills, says Michael Littlefield, program chair of the IT networks support program at BCC. “Students are given projects and research assignments that simulate those in business environments.

For example, students had to design a network for the school district and present that at a management review, so they learned about presentation skills, the research process, design specs, and so on.”

Although many potential employers might have hiring freezes because of the depressed economy, companies still are looking to community colleges to groom the next generation of workers.

Boeing is particularly supportive of community colleges because of what Bunce describes as their willingness to work closely with industry to ensure students receive relevant practical and academic training. Boeing works with 62 community colleges to promote excellence in education and diversity in student body and faculty staff for the training of existing and future Boeing employees, Bunce explains.

Along with recruiting community college graduates into IT positions – 235 of Boeing’s 10,000 IT workforce have associate IT degrees from BCC – Boeing has contracted BCC to provide Cisco and Microsoft certification training to its employees. Boeing has been an active member of various BCC advisory boards for the past seven years.

In September, BCC introduced its Computing Security Professional Certification program in response to a request from Boeing. Developed in conjunction with Boeing’s network experts, the post-graduate level program covers structured methodology for securing a network and collecting computer forensics.

“There is a shortage of people who have the training and/or education in computing and network security. We would like to hire people with this training,” Bunce says.

BCC also altered the focus of its degree program to include documentation skills in response to student feedback and suggestions from the advisory board. For example, practical class projects are now marked on how well projects are documented and the technical aspects of the networks.

Community colleges such as BCC are breeding grounds for a diverse population of potential IT employees. Of the 270 students enrolled in BCC’s IT degree program, 10% came straight from high school, and 90% are nontraditional students. A full 75% are already employed, while 45% work in tech-related fields.

BCC’s Littlefield says that in his past experience, between 70% and 90% of graduates find network jobs in support roles. “It is not reasonable for graduates to expect to become network engineers [with a community college degree] but they could be placed in a support role.”

Bunce agrees with that assessment. “Community colleges are better for entry-level positions such as PC support and networking technicians,” he says.

“University graduates would be over-educated for those positions; they want to be network designers or programmers,” he adds.