High-demand jobs, high-cost education

Community colleges often struggle to afford the facilities and instructors needed to educate students for high-demand fields like microelectronics and biotech. More are getting creative.

The microelectronics industry needs more workers, and the high-paying jobs it offers would be a step up for millions of Americans. That was true even before the “Chips and Science” Act, which aims to dramatically increase domestic chip production, became law this summer. 

Many colleges and universities are on board with educating more students—from certificate programs all the way to PhD’s—in the field. But there is a big and costly sticking point: facilities.

Experiential learning is critical in the field, but only the country’s largest research universities tend to have the kinds of labs and tools that are on par with industry. That presents an especially tough challenge for community colleges—which are needed to train the thousands of operators and technicians for the new manufacturing facilities expected to come online. 

At least half of the jobs in a given semiconductor plant, or fab, don’t require a bachelor’s degree. But they do require hands-on training.

“There are real barriers,” Shadi Shahedipour-Sandvik, senior vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development at the State University of New York, said at a recent event on expanding microelectronics education. “Infrastructure is a big piece.”

The big idea: It’s a challenge not just in microelectronics, but across many high-demand, high-income fields at community colleges across the country. Even when those colleges design the necessary curricula, grow partnerships with employers, and recruit students, they often find that the instructors and equipment needed can be prohibitively expensive. 

The problem arises most often in highly technical fields, says Jennifer Freeman, senior director at JFF, a nonprofit organization focused on the workforce. Those fields, like advanced manufacturing and biotech, require expensive equipment. And because the fields change rapidly, equipment needs to be constantly updated to give students the best experience.  

In fields where equipment and facilities are expensive to procure, skilled instructors often are as well.  

“These issues really do cut against broad societal goals that we have right now,” says Freeman. “If they can’t find instructors, then they can’t provide as much training as the local workforce needs, then they’re not contributing to the development of their region.”

Some colleges are trying to find creative ways around these cost challenges, often with partnership models, incubators, or new funding mechanisms. A major semiconductor industry association, for example, recently pulled together 200 universities and community colleges to partner with 1,500 companies to share resources and provide more hands-on training for students.

Across the country, what these kinds of new approaches look like often depends on the local industry, government, and context. Here’s how four community colleges are approaching these cost challenges. 

The power of partnerships

A pharmaceutical manufacturing line. (Photo by wacomka via Shutterstock)

Scott Ralls, president of Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C., says acquiring the expensive facilities, equipment, and instructors needed to do high-quality technical education is a fundamental challenge for the college.

“While everybody’s in favor of technical education, that’s sometimes where you see the biggest difference between rhetoric and investment, because of the requirements that are there and what some people feel you can do without the funding,” Ralls says.

The greatest challenge for Wake Tech has been hiring instructors, for which funding is provided by the state. While some of the pain points are obvious ones, like cybersecurity, Ralls says it’s also hard to find instructors in fields like collision repair, electrical, and radiography. When private sector salaries go up, hiring gets even harder. 

“Nobody works at a community college to make a lot of money,” he says, “but what sometimes shocks them is the differential.”

However relationships with employers (and perhaps naming some buildings after them) can lead to funding that the college can use for instructors and equipment. Wake Tech recently named its new Lilly Science and Technology Center after Eli Lilly and Company, in recognition of a $1.1 million donation that will allow it to launch a new workforce partnership with nearby Durham Technical Community College. 

“Employer engagement is an everyday endeavor,” Ralls says. That engagement is made easier by North Carolina’s customized training programs for businesses, which allow colleges like Wake Tech to develop relationships with businesses before they even arrive in the state. 

Facilities costs are typically provided for by the county. However, Wake Tech also meets some of its needs with joint facilities on the nearby campus of North Carolina State University. The college offers programming and operates a “Capstone Center,” meant to mirror a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility, at the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center there.

“On one floor are all the university folks who work with the scientists and engineers. On the other floor are our folks who are providing very advanced specialized training for production level folks in biopharma,” Ralls says.

The college has used the facility in part to upskill its own instructors. Through a program called “BioTeach,” faculty members who have the credentials to teach biopharmaceutical manufacturing, but not the pharmaceutical experience can take on a one-year apprenticeship at the training center. 

Creative funding

Pima Community College Northwest Campus (Courtesy of Pima Foundation)

Ian Roark, vice chancellor of workforce development and innovation at Pima Community College near Tucson, Ariz. says that since 2016, the college has received no state funding. Around 55% of revenue comes from local property taxes, and the rest is from tuition and fees, grants, philanthropy, and partnerships with business and industry. 

Costs for learners are kept to about $89 per credit hour in most programs. 

Part of the key to making that work while operating expensive programs—like automotive technology, aviation technology, building construction technology—is to understand that some of these programs aren’t going to break even

“We accept on a strategic basis that there are loss leader programs, and that’s important for us to allow partnerships to thrive so that we can make up for that lost revenue by other means,” Roark says. 

For example, the college uses revenue from customized training opportunities for businesses and shorter-term programs to offset the operations of the aviation technology program. The college can’t offer every program this way, but prioritizes ones that are in alignment with the area’s economic development goals.  

Pima Community College has also leveraged the aviation program and its facilities, Roark says, to draw additional funding. Local and state governments consider the program an asset in drawing businesses to the area, and so have provided funding to expand the necessary physical facilities. 

Finding instructors can be challenging, Roark says, but offering programs that are aligned with the industries that are growing in the Tucson area allows the college to draw from those businesses as they grow. The college has over 700 industry partnerships, including with Caterpillar, Raytheon Technologies, and Bombardier. 

Launching an incubator

The state of Texas hopes to encourage growth of its biotechnology sector. But a few years ago, the governor’s office noted a significant lack of wet lab space for early stage companies in the Austin region. 

So the governor’s office approached Austin Community College with $5 million to build wet lab space for emerging companies.

“It would help alleviate the dearth of wet lab space in our particular region, it would be a very good economic development activity,” says Michael Midgley, the college’s vice chancellor of instruction. “And there are several ways we believe this could benefit students.”

Austin Community College already had a biotech program, one where half of the students already have bachelor’s degrees. But now the new wet lab space is leased to emerging companies, who are asked to take students on as interns. 

Over time, several of the incubated companies have hired students, and students have taken on roles for the college in maintaining the equipment. 

The college wouldn’t have been able to build the lab space itself, Midgley says. Even after the $5 million from the governor’s office, the college invested around $800,000 in the build out. Now, the direct out-of-pocket costs at the incubator are covered through its leases. 

“It supports the regional economy and it supports our students,” Midgley says. “They get an experience they would not otherwise be able to have.”

The grand opening of Austin Community College’s Fashion Incubator. (Courtesy of ACC)

Austin Community College also operates a fashion incubator, which was proposed by the city. That incubator isn’t as far along in development as the biotech one, but works similarly. 

The college brings on emerging designers to take advantage of the facility while mentoring students. The incubator also hosts a small garment manufacturing site. It’s not self-supported yet, but that’s the goal, Midgley says. The new incubator also served as a catalyst for the college’s fashion design degree and certificate. 

The incubators haven’t cut costs for the college per se, but they have given students valuable new experiences in a way that is cost efficient. 

“It will make those experiences more real, more valid, and richer for our students,” Midgley said. 

Attracting an industry

Photo by Alexandru-Bogdan Ghita via Unsplash

Lorain County Community College, in the manufacturing center of northern Ohio, has plenty of experience with the challenges of updating expensive equipment. But keeping equipment and facilities up-to-date is a funding priority for the college, and that has resulted in some interesting partnerships. 

Lorain often partners with equipment providers to showcase their products on campus. That allows students to use the equipment, while the manufacturers also train customers on their products at the college, says Tracy Green, vice president of strategic and institutional development. 

The college also received an award from Intel, which recently invested in a major new  semiconductor manufacturing plant in Ohio, to develop curriculum, faculty, and experiential learning programs in semiconductor processing and industrial automation manufacturing. 

That award, Green says, didn’t come out of nowhere. The college has been working with industry partners to understand where they are headed and using that to decide which programs to offer. 

The college has offered an associate degree in microelectronics manufacturing since 2013, and launched an applied bachelors in the field in 2018. That program is designed as a “earn and learn,” where after the first semester students are working for a partner employer three days per week. One hundred percent of students have job offers soon after graduation, Green says. 

“While Intel is two hours away from our campus, we know that is not just one company coming to the Midwest, it is an entire industry that is planting roots that will impact generations to come,” she says.

While community colleges often struggle with gathering resources, Green says they have the DNA to address today’s workforce challenges. 

“New technologies, new jobs that weren’t being talked about ten years ago are now on the scene,” she says. “Truly community colleges were built for moments like this.”

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