On-Ramps to Careers

A community college offers short-term training with help from the Pentagon.

Valencia College gets help from the Pentagon to offer an on-ramp to a high-demand career. Also, an update on short-term Pell, a deep dive on the WIOA bill, and the demise of an unusual online transfer network.

Orlando, Florida, photo by Cody Board on Unsplash

Short-Term Path to a Career

Valencia College started small eight years ago with a handful of Accelerated Skills Training programs. The goal was to create on-ramps to education and jobs for working learners who might not be interested in earning a degree.

Many students want short-term training options, says Carolyn McMorran, assistant vice president of professional continuing education at the two-year college, which is based in central Florida. So Valencia began offering intensive, hands-on learning at multiple locations, with monthly program starts and job-placement services.

The first accelerated programs were in advanced manufacturing, construction, healthcare, and transportation logistics. But the demand-driven offerings have since grown to 17 programs enrolling 1K students per year. All are designed to lead to an industry-recognized credential, a career, and a family-sustaining wage, McMorran says.

The training ranges in length from a four-week commercial truck driving program—for which the college manages a fleet of 18 semis—to a 28-week welding program.

Advanced manufacturing is hot in greater Orlando. For example, demand for precision optics—a small but booming field that I’ve written about before—is so high that McMorran says local companies at times have hired technicians off the street. “Employers are saying you don’t need degrees,” she says, “but you do need skill.”

An entry-level optics technician can expect to make $40K in central Florida. They can use certifications to leapfrog to higher wages. To help students land good jobs in the industry, Valencia created a 15-week program that leads to five industry certifications. All of the initial cohort of students already have jobs, so the classes are offered at night and on the weekends.

The college has a team of employees who work on student recruitment for its accelerated programs. “This is not ‘build it and they will come,’” says McMorran. The outreach team helps prospective students get a better sense of what careers in those fields are like. A few weeks after students enroll, they get coaching and guidance from the college’s career-placement services.

McMorran says the short-term optics technician training functions like a pre-apprenticeship, with vetting and essential skill-building on the front end and more formal training on the job. The goal is breaking the cycle of generational poverty, she says, by exposing students and their friends and family to what’s possible in a stable career with growth potential.

Cost of Delivery: The catch with short-term programs in high-demand fields is that they often are expensive for community colleges to offer. They tend to require pricey equipment, and instructors are hard to hire and retain. 

To avoid passing costs on to students, colleges often cobble together grants and donations, including from companies. All of Valencia’s accelerated programs are noncredit and not eligible for federal Pell Grants, so the college taps support from a workforce board and other sources.

Even so, McMorran says, Valencia would not have been able to create the optics program without help from AmeriCOM, the American Center for Optics Manufacturing. The center’s core project is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. It seeks to create a consortium across industry, education providers, and government to expand workforce training programs and “secure the nation’s precision optics supply chain.”

Students need to be trained on the same equipment that technicians use in optics manufacturing centers, says Josanne DeNatale, AmeriCOM’s national marketing and workforce development operations director. But a single lens grinder for training technicians costs $250K, and the typical training lab runs to about $1.2M. AmeriCOM gave Valencia $1.5M worth of gear.

“There’s no way a college could afford the equipment if they had to purchase it themselves,” DeNatale says.

Valencia is the first college to offer a short-term program for optics technicians. But others are interested in creating similar accelerated programs, according to DeNatale. Valencia plans to share elements of its curriculum with other colleges, including the program’s structure and learning outcomes. 

“Organizations like AmeriCOM that are charged by the Department of Defense to build up manufacturing in the United States must find ways to better support our community college partners,” DeNatale wrote in a recent essay.

(I’m interested in reporting on other examples where the Pentagon has given a lift to the two-year sector. Let me know what you’ve seen?)

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Workforce Bills Move Forward

The U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee has been busy of late. 

This week the committee passed bipartisan bills to make short-term programs eligible for Pell Grants and to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Workforce education is one of few issues to see any bipartisan action in Washington. And while backers of the two proposals were buoyed by them clearing a key hurdle, they face uncertainty in getting to the finish line.

Some progressive advocates remain critical of short-term Pell. Despite the relatively stiff performance metrics included in the bill, several prominent consumer groups are opposed to the eligibility of fully online programs and those offered by for-profits. That sentiment likely is shared by Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who leads the Senate’s HELP Committee.

In addition, the House kicked up a ruckus this week when higher education groups realized that the bill would pay for itself by cutting off federal student loans for dozens of wealthy private universities that are subject to a federal tax on their endowments. 

Updating the Federal Workforce System: Less controversial, and less noticed, have been specifics in the WIOA bill.

The legislation would help modernize parts of the fragmented workforce training system. But as Elyse Ashburn reports for Work Shift, the bill falls short of the overhaul many experts feel is needed.

It would require states to spend more of their WIOA funds—no less than 50% in each local area—on training rather than administration or other services. The bill also includes more of a focus on incumbent worker training, the use of real-time labor market data, and skills-based hiring as a way to promote economic mobility.

Yet with just $3.3B in authorized spending, WIOA would remain vastly underfunded. The bill’s language also includes vague definitions, experts say, and doesn’t do enough to boost training programs with a strong track record.

Click on over Work Shift for reactions and more about the proposal.

Transfer Network Goes Down

The University of Florida has paused an unusual online transfer arrangement with three of the state’s community colleges.

Gator Pathways, begun two years ago, focused on students who participate in employer education benefit programs. UF Online started the network shortly after Walmart dropped the university as an education partner through Guild Education.

Under the program, learners who failed to gain admission to UF Online were referred to Santa Fe College, Seminole State College, and the College of Central Florida. Students who enrolled online at those two-year colleges then had a seamless transfer route to pursue bachelor’s degrees at UF Online.

The transfer network sought to build connections with major employers while deepening ties across the consortium and raising awareness about UF Online’s degree tracks. Amazon’s Career Choice has been a partner.

However, UF said Gator Pathways had limited success, with fewer than 10 students successfully matriculating. 

“The program is paused while we reevaluate how to serve Florida citizens best,” the university said. “UF continues working with various state colleges on a variety of additional programs to enhance students' access to higher education opportunities and create a highly skilled workforce in Florida.”

The network didn’t have a lot of time to get rolling. A multidirectional transfer program involving big employers likely involves substantial complexity. 

Even so, the relatively quick demise of Gator Pathways is another example of how hard it is for traditional higher education to find ways to serve substantial numbers of working learners—and how the university business model disincentivizes student transfer.

Open Tabs

AI and Unions
Microsoft and the AFL-CIO announced a partnership on AI and the workforce, which includes a plan to provide AI education for workers and students. The two organizations say they will back the expansion of registered apprenticeships, particularly for nontraditional tech roles, and more funding for CTE programs. The agreement comes amid a growing number of workplace disputes about AI rollouts, reports Axios AI+.

AI Alliance
IBM and Meta have launched a coalition focused on AI that features more than 50 founding members, including several research universities. The new AI Alliance will seek to provide information and tools to harness the technology in ways that prioritize safety, diversity, and economic opportunity. The group’s goals include global AI skills-building and the creation of educational content to inform the public discourse and policymakers.

AI and Publishing
Pearson will expand the availability of its generative AI beta to millions of students through the company’s math, science, and business content. Three-quarters of students who used the company’s AI tools this fall said they were helpful for their studies. Pearson said it has been acting on feedback from students, instructors, and others to improve AI experiences, including by adding positive language to encourage students

Working Learners
An estimated 4.3M Americans in their prime working years are enrolled in college. More than three-quarters of these students hold a job, with a high concentration of workers in healthcare, according to a report from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. Vocational program enrollment for this group has declined over the last couple decades, while graduate program numbers have risen since the Great Recession.

State Policy
Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy with an influential voice on federal higher education policy, rolled out a new research agenda for state policy with a particular focus on ROI. As more states enact outcomes-based funding formulas, the group said it’s increasingly important to determine whether these models have a positive impact on student outcomes and which elements of the policy designs are most effective at increasing ROI.

Funding Moves
Techstars, a pre-seed investment company, has partnered with Strada Education Foundation and World Education Services to relaunch the Techstars Workforce Development Accelerator.

MacKenzie Scott’s Yield Giving has donated $7M to CareerWise, a nonprofit youth apprenticeship provider that has placed more than 1,400 apprentices with 120 employers.

Next week I’m planning to send an issue with Open Tabs and highlights from Work Shift’s 2023 coverage. Catch you then. —PF