Unleashing the Potential of Community Colleges: A Collaborative Path Forward

>>Article by Dr. Jared Ashcroft<<

Update: ASEE TV video at end with Dr. Ashcroft and students exploring fields of micro, nano, and science.

We find ourselves at a unique crossroads in the realm of higher education. A labor shortage stares us in the face, opening up a dangerous chasm between education and workforce requirements. We need to rewrite the training rules for manufacturing technicians and beyond to stop this shortage.

Jared Ashcroft

The Looming Labor Gap and the Unsung Heroes

The CHIPS and Science Act predicts a 100,000-worker shortage soon. With this labor challenge in front of us, community colleges, long the unsung heroes of higher education, stand poised to play a pivotal role in molding the future workforce. I suggest a path based on the current work the National Institute of Standards and Technology at the Department of Commerce is doing nationally.

NIST recently laid out a 30-page Vision and Strategy for regional National Semiconductor Technology Centers to support and extend U.S. leadership in semiconductor research, which includes guidance on technician opportunities. Thanks to numerous experts from industry, higher education, and others, this vision document presents the framework we need.

As government agencies, industry leaders, and educational institutions unite, we must build a genuine working alliance that includes community colleges and schools that historically have specialized in training technician-oriented specialties, such as semiconductor technicians.

Community colleges offer an early range of technical education, from associate degrees to shorter-term certificate programs. We want to seriously consider the educational foundation that will most benefit the student and the companies that hire them so that they are able and ready to continue developing skills, durable skills also known as “soft skills,” if and when they continue additional degree programs. By the way, most companies have cited on-the-job training and short-term certificates as essentials. At the same time, executives lament that students need those durable soft skills crucial to collaboration and leadership growth.

My suggestion is this: As part of creating the National Semiconductor Technology Center and its regional locations, we also build a national community college consortium to handle the incentives and funding to get more students into technician education. Various semiconductor and advanced manufacturing programs can often exist across state or regional lines, limiting the necessary training a future technician might need.

For example, a student may need to intern in a clean room outside of their state or region, which would jeopardize their scholarship/internship funding rather than having community colleges under eight areas. Just put the incentives program at a national scope level, enabling them to get student funding for technician education. Community colleges can still work with the regional NSTC. Still, they have access to a national group helping to direct and guide a national CC Incentives Consortium (and not have to go to each Regional to get incentives funding).

A National Approach: Bridging Education with Industry

To that end, a paradigm shift is necessary. The status quo of XYZ-generic programs often leans towards producing a labor pool, sometimes ignoring the importance of a holistic educational experience. We need student-focused programs that blend general education with industry-specific boot camps – a balanced education that ensures a firm grounding while nurturing specialized skills. Mind you, we are not suggesting super-short training programs that leave the student in a precarious position, although some of these have successfully built an educational foundation they can depend upon and build out.

A student-focused, national perspective is of the essence. Regional programs have their merits, no doubt. However, it is time to move past geographical constraints and provide opportunities to students from varied backgrounds. Equal access to top-tier education and career opportunities can only happen if we widen our lens – and with a new approach of providing direct funding via scholarships and grants to thousands of students who can become the future semiconductor workforce.

There’s only one path to adding 100,000 workers, funding those potential workers to get adequately trained and options for a brighter future through educational opportunities.

Revolutionizing Community College Education: Collaboration is Key

Organizations like the Micro- Nanotechnology Education Center (MNT-EC) can provide invaluable support in these efforts, serving as connection points to facilitate collaboration between community colleges, research universities, government bodies, and industry heavyweights. By pooling our wisdom and resources, we can revolutionize community college education.

This national approach will also require comprehensive internship programs seamlessly integrated with community college curricula. Sufficient and secure funding from a centralized source will guarantee the effectiveness and accessibility of these programs while also subjecting them to rigorous evaluation. To be blunt, interns need enough income to make an opportunity less of a stepping stone out of a company and more of a launching pad within a company that has granted the internships in the first place. It is in the best interest of industry leaders to provide financial support and actively engage with potential future employees from an early stage.

Honest data collection and evaluation for better tracking/measurement, carried out by independent educational research entities, are non-negotiable. Transparency in outcomes is crucial, as is using data to make informed decisions and refine our community college, training, and internship programs.

Challenges abound regarding collaboration between government agencies, industry leaders, and educational institutions. Competing interests and lack of coordination often obstruct progress. It’s time we identify our strengths, share resources and expertise, and strive to collaborate effectively rather than duplicate efforts.

Community colleges need support systems from a central source that can remove administrative support and infrastructure obstacles when running grants and partnerships. By bolstering these support systems, we can enable community colleges to emerge as powerhouses of educational transformation.

Community colleges should also morph into targeted recruitment sources, linking students with industry opportunities. Again, a central repository and match-making type source could be essential to this recruiting component. By forging strong partnerships with industry, we can ensure students gain relevant hands-on experience, aligning their education with their career goals.

Keeping track of student outcomes for ongoing improvement is paramount. Better data collection and analysis systems are needed. We can harness platforms like LinkedIn to track results and highlight areas that need enhancement.

As we stand at an exciting new frontier of a new era in community college education, we must embrace a collaborative approach that puts students at the center. We can revolutionize community college education by fostering industry-driven, student-focused programs, leveraging collaboration for practical impact, ensuring sustainable funding and stipend support, and prioritizing transparency, evaluation, and research.

This transformation will equip students with the skills they need for the workforce and empower them to thrive in an ever-changing economic landscape. It is a call to action for government agencies, industry leaders, and educational institutions to come together and shape a brighter future for community college students, unlocking their full potential and driving societal progress.

We have a chance to build a future where every student, regardless of background, can access high-quality education and set off on a successful career path. We can tap into the immense transformative power of community colleges and prepare our students for the future’s industries.

Let’s seize this opportunity together.

Many different disciplines are needed in nanotechnology specialties — optics (laser), materials science, semiconductor manufacturing, nanobiology (vaccines), to name a few. This video explores various industry opportunities for students to consider. This video was produced during the ASEE 2022 conference for the Micro Nanotechnology Education Center (MNT-EC) at Pasadena City College.

We shared this video on LinkedIn (more than once) today and if you are interested you can follow our latest news and updates on jobs, internships, scholarships, and other useful info from the #nano and #micro community.

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