5 lessons from job-training programs: The original competency-based experts

Some community colleges have succeeded in converting their job training programs into full-fledged competency-based degrees. One success story shares five lessons.

job-competency-trainingCommunity colleges, which have been offering occupational education for decades, have long understood how to address the skills needed by local employers. Now they’re also learning how to integrate competency-based assessment into those courses.

The germination for many such programs began with funding provided through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCT), a multi-year federal grant program introduced by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The overall goal has been to help schools educate workers in two years or less for employment in “high wage, high skill occupations.”

The Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) used the funding to rework a program that in September was re-introduced as a competency-based mechatronics associate’s degree, which integrates the study of mechanics, electronics, control theory, and computer science. The Pennsylvania institution gained attention when President Obama and Vice President Biden visited the college in April to announce a fourth round of TAACCCT funding and applaud the college for running an education model that should be replicated elsewhere.

In this article the college shares lessons it has learned in the process of developing its competency-based job training program.

1. Offer a ground-level entry

The CCAC program started out as non-credit bearing. It was solely a workforce initiative funded by TAACCCT and intended for displaced workers. If there was still room in a class, the college was allowed to register other unemployed or underemployed people. From there, the course was open to employed individuals seeking a career change.

They’d start in the college’s certified production technician class, an entry-level program for people who have never worked in manufacturing. “It’s very theory-based to help them get familiar with the terminology and what they will learn if they decide to go into mechatronics,” explained Project Manager Sylvia Elsayed. It’s also fairly traditional; they study concepts and take tests.

She noted that about 40 percent of the people tackling the 10-week course were unemployed; the rest were “employed,” though how that’s defined is elastic. “Even if [they] work at McDonald’s or Starbucks, we still have to count those people as employed,” she said. “One hundred percent unemployed people are really hard to find.”

Once students get through that course, which lasts 10 weeks and earns them six credits, Elsayed added, they can sit for the industry credential, which is issued by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC) and endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers.

From there, the student must made a decision about whether or not to go into the degree program, which was introduced by the college in September (though the program has existed under a different name for about a decade). Elsayed estimated that about one in four or five students wants to pursue the associate’s degree.

(Next page: Lessons 2-3)