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)

2. Competencies evolve, and so should your program

When the program that eventually grew into mechatronics was begun, the original thinking was that students could get through in about 225 hours. “They found that didn’t work,” said Elsayed. So it was increased to 300 hours, then 360 hours. Because people go through the work at their own speeds, the higher amount of time seemed to mesh better with most students’ self-pacing.

But all along the instructors have also been adding competencies “to help students and ensure they were successful. By now the list of competencies adds up to the hundreds,” she pointed out. And they grow more complex as the student gains mastery in the beginning topics.

While the program is entirely self-paced, there are start and end dates the student is supposed to follow, with “a little leeway” built in, “because some people do take a little longer.” On the other hand, some people speed through based on their backgrounds. And they won’t be held back.

The instructor does “just-in-time” training, she added. “If two or three of them are having the same questions, he has a whiteboard and he pulls it over and he’ll draw a diagram or circuit and show them where they’re having trouble.” What the training isn’t, she said, is a “standard classroom lecture.”

3. Don’t ignore the fundamentals

Whether they’re going into traditional classrooms or competency-based programs, students still need to have the fundamentals, and that means a strong foundation in math. Early on, CCAC would assess students with a placement test. “We said, OK, as long as you are at a 10th grade level, you must understand algebra, [so] you’ll do well. But we found that just because you do all right on a standardized test, that does not mean you really understand algebra,” Elsayed said.

Currently, the math entrance requirement stands at 11th grade-plus.

CCAC has tried all kinds of techniques to bring students up to speed. Now the college takes a two-pronged approach. It runs a math café with tutors. And it offers Plato, an online remediation program from Edmentum. The school identifies where a student is weak in math and assigns modules for them to practice on. When they believe they’re ready, they can come back and retest.

Where prospective students aren’t able to get up to standard, they’re also unable to get into the class. “Some people just can’t,” acknowledged Elsayed. “They’re [not] willing to put in the time and effort necessary to learn the math.”

(Next page: Lessons 4-5)

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.

Add your opinion to the discussion.