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

4. Reach out to industry

Working with industry is important for a competency-based education program for several reasons. First, noted Elsayed, those company contacts can provide feedback on the competencies students need to master. Second, they’re the ones doing the local hiring, and they need to know about the qualified candidates graduating from the program.

CCAC, for example, held a focus group with companies that have participated in the program in some capacity, worked with the college, or hired its students. Over the course of a day, participants reviewed all of the competencies students would be learning to see how relevant those would be to their particular company. Each company ranked the competency on a scale of one to four—one being unimportant, four being very important.

The college also holds advisory board meetings at least once a year to share progress reports about the program and to learn about new skills the companies want.

Elsayed has also been visiting local companies unfamiliar with the college’s programs. “I take my lead instructor with me. We explain what we’re doing. Most of the time they come back and see our facility.” That direct contact not only lets companies know there’s a ready supply of trained workers, but they’ve also ended up sending some of their employees through the program too, she added.

The companies also participate in a career fair at the college. The latest fair drew 17 companies,.”all looking for entry level production or maintenance-mechatronics people,” said Elsayed. Not only did students at her own college attend the fair, but also students from other schools in Western Pennsylvania. “We’re trying to work together in the region to help employers find the individuals with the skills they need,” she explained.

Perhaps the most important aspect of industry participation is that their presence helps “motivate the students,” said Elsayed. After the job fair, for example, many people said to her, “These people at your career fair were all manufacturers. They were interested in what we had to offer.”

5. Share best practices

CCAC is one of many schools in Pennsylvania offering advanced manufacturing career training. All came about through TAACCCT grants, but each has taken a different route to competency-based education. Elsayed counts them off: Reading Area Community College has an “outstanding program” that started in the same time frame as CCAC’s. Westmoreland County offers a program concentration on petroleum and natural gas in manufacturing. The Community College of Philadelphia has a small program for manufacturing. And there are easily 10 other institutions with kindred programs.

During the life of the TAACCCT grant, the institutions would come together as a group to discuss what was successful and what wasn’t working and to share best practices. Once a month, they’d hold a phone call with their fiscal agent, CC Philly, to talk about grant-related activities.

What hasn’t quite happened is a structure for enabling students to transfer their credits transparently between one school teaching mechatronics and another. However, an initiative by the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board is “trying to get all of the schools to teach the same things,” said Elsayed. That involves a review process where the board examines curriculum, trainers and faculty to certify that the competencies are similar. “Electricity is electricity. There are certain skills and competencies. It doesn’t matter what school [issues the credits]. I really think they would transfer.”

One of Elsayed’s favorite stories to share is the student who was in his mid-20s working part-time at a grocery store, “going nowhere,” with no benefits and making “very little money.” He took the entry level course for certified production technologist. A local employer came in to talk with the class and set up special testing, a practice with most of the steel companies in the region. This student did well on the test and was hired as a material handler. “It’s entry level, but with overtime he will make over $50,000 a year. He’s happy. He’s making a great wage. He has benefits,” she said. “People think if you don’t have a four-year degree you’re not going to do well in life. That’s not true.”

Dian Schaffhauser is a journalist who reports on education technology. Follow her @schaffhauser.