Educational Asset: Salt Lake Community College is a workhorse of education and job training

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Think about the people you encounter on a day-to-day basis: dental hygienists, medical assistants, construction workers, police officers. Chances are, many of them got their education at Salt Lake Community College.

That’s ignoring the accountants, doctors, lawyers, teachers or members of countless other professions who got their start at SLCC. When it comes down to it, Salt Lake Community College has, in one way or another, an impact on virtually every sector of the state’s economy.

“If it feels like we’re everywhere, that’s deliberate,” says Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin.

From preparing students for transferring to other institutions to giving first-generation college students a gentler introduction to higher education to training future welders, electricians, builders, manufacturers and mechanics to craft the world of the future, to helping adults across the economic spectrum improve their careers, Salt Lake Community College has a program for that.

“It is really our mission. The word ‘workhorse’ is used a lot, and I really like that word because in Salt Lake County, when you think about the workforce needs and the responsiveness needs, whether that’s credit or noncredit, short term or long term, a community college is really the higher education institution that is designed to serve both of those missions: workforce and transfer,” Huftalin says. “Universities, certainly, in their research capacity, are driving economic development because they’re creating new ideas and they’re contributing to the research and new companies, etc., but if you look across the nation, community colleges are really the institutions that are nimble enough and have been asked to be the workforce drivers.

“We are everywhere, but that’s a fundamental part of our mission: We have a transfer mission to help students successfully transfer in fields we know they need a baccalaureate degree or beyond, and then we also fundamentally have a mission to respond to workforce needs, and that’s short-term, applied training or technical training,” she adds.

“A community college is really the higher education institution that is designed to serve both of those missions: workforce and transfer. … We have a transfer mission to help students successfully transfer in fields we know they need a baccalaureate degree or beyond, and then we also fundamentally have a mission to respond to workforce needs, and that’s short-term, applied training or technical training.” –Deneece Huftalin, President, Salt Lake Community College

Filling workforce needs

The college has always had workforce needs as one of its two main goals but took a new focus on that aspect when Huftalin took the reins four years ago. By working closely with industry partners to find workforce and training needs, she says, SLCC can fill niches more quickly than other institutions.

A recent and rapidly growing example of this is the Pathways program, which trains high school students or adults in two separately tailored tracks to work in specific fields. Partnerships with companies like Boeing and Hexcel brought about the inaugural aerospace composite manufacturing pathways program, which has been so successful in terms of participation and satisfaction among companies and graduates alike that it has spurred similar programs for diesel technicians and medical technicians, with an IT pathways program on the way and a construction pathways program likely to follow.

“These are all areas where our partners are saying, we need help,” she says, noting that the college is also working with high school students to broaden their perspectives of successful careers outside of the typical four-year degree path, as well as with adults who want to enter into new fields but lack the time or resources to get whole college degrees.

“None of this could happen without really strong partnerships, and that’s a message everyone needs to hear. We get a lot more done when we work together and collaborate than when we fight with one other. So if you think about the school districts, the higher ed, the [applied technical colleges], [the Governor’s Office of Economic Development], industry partners—we all care about the same things, right? We all care about advancing Utah and Utahns, and those are good examples of that.”

The programs, and the support and enthusiasm from SLCC, have brought astounding results, says Kimberlee Carlile, director of talent initiatives with GOED. “They’ve been phenomenal partners in a lot of our statewide strategic workforce training plans. … All of these programs have actually been implemented and piloted in Salt Lake Community College, and the reason for that is they do such a good job in the training. They’re flexible in their curriculum, and they’re really dedicated for this as a statewide learning initiative,” she says, noting SLCC has also been able to tie a lot of training with high school curriculum and offer stackable credentials to students of all ages. “We’re able to get them trained and in the workforce because of the phenomenal work Salt Lake Community College has been doing.”

Carlile points to Huftalin’s efforts as a driving force behind recent strides that are only growing larger as industries see the success of existing programs. “She has been instrumental to lead not only SLCC but the state. Work-based learning is becoming more and more popular and we’re learning that this is instrumental for success,” says Carlile. “You’ll see they’re very involved with industry and they have industry not only involved in curriculum but also with internships and job shadow for the state. And that’s something we’re supportive of as a state because it provides students with a hand-on look at jobs and gives them opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. … We want to see that. We want to see our economy continuing to grow.”

The school is continuing to expand its partnerships and training programs, including a recent pilot program that put a dozen people experiencing homelessness through a four-week construction framing assistant training, created in collaboration with Salt Lake City, the Department of Workforce Services, and Housing Authority of Salt Lake City. For the eight who finished the course, construction companies were at the graduation ceremony for interviews, and housing authority gave them six months of housing to help them get on their feet.

“That’s a really little number, eight people, but that kind of collaboration and really targeted training—the construction industry needs framers, these guys need help, housing can contribute, education can make it flexible and affordable—it was just golden. It’s another one of those strength-in-collaboration stories,” Huftalin says. “That’s very small scale, but that’s how Pathways started: it was a pretty small scale in aerospace, but now that model has built out.”

“They’ve been phenomenal partners in a lot of our statewide strategic workforce training plans. … All of these programs have actually been implemented and piloted in Salt Lake Community College, and the reason for that is they do such a good job in the training. They’re flexible in their curriculum, and they’re really dedicated for this as a statewide learning initiative.” – Kimberlee Carlile, Director of Talent Initiatives, Governor’s Office of Economic Development

Opportunities across demographics

Another of SLCC’s strengths is its accessibility to those who don’t fit the mold of what most think of as a college student, says Huftalin. Community colleges in general tend to have a reputation of being institutions only for a minority who can’t handle the traditional university model, she says, but more students attend community colleges across the nation than they do universities.

“Part of the community college stigma is that only certain people go to community college,” says Huftalin, noting that often when giving a speech or talking to donors, people will tell her in hushed tones about a relative attending community college. “I’m like, why are you whispering? That is not a bad thing. Coming here because you kind of blew it in high school or you had something happen or you weren’t engaged—how many students do you know who weren’t engaged in high school? The majority—or you’re a mom or dad who can go back to school because the kids are gone and you come back and we help you.”

Beyond those students whose high school grade point averages were too low for admission into other institutions, Huftalin says many students with high GPAs come to SLCC for their associate’s degrees before transferring to a larger—and more expensive—university. For those students who struggled academically, SLCC offers specialized classes in math and English to help them get up to a university level, and for those who want a more rigorous academic experience, there are opportunities for research and studying abroad.

The student body also tends to be incredibly diverse in age, ethnicity and life experience, and the school has services to match. A full 55 percent of students at SLCC are first-generation students, and SLCC has services to help them navigate the obstacle course of requirements in higher education. For refugees and immigrants, there are separate services, including a full Spanish-language website. There’s also an office specifically for giving support and aid to veterans, as well as those in minority populations.

Last year, SLCC awarded more than 4,700 degrees—with Huftalin personally shaking the hand of each of the more than a thousand students who walked at graduation—and more than 60,000 people accessed some kind of services, classes or training the school offers across its 10 campuses. Huftalin says SLCC hopes to reach more people in the future across the state via online competency-based classes and certification.

“There are certain populations of our students who have historically been under-represented, or who are coming back to college maybe as a veteran with a lot of challenges. We’re very mindful of the support our students need and try very hard to resource that,” she says, noting the low class size, low tuition and diversity help make all kinds of students feel more at home in the classroom.

“The intimidation factor is gone, and people thrive and they get their academic confidence, and then they either go into the workforce or they transfer. … Whatever it is—you want to be a nurse, you want to be an automotive technician, you want to be a doctor, you want to be a lawyer—whatever it is, we’ll help you get there, and I love that about this college.”

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