Q-and-A: Workforce development key to success at Western Nevada College

Current enrollment overall is expected to be down about 5% to 7% with face-to-face recruitment efforts limited due to the pandemic, WNC President Vincent Solis said.

Current enrollment overall is expected to be down about 5% to 7% with face-to-face recruitment efforts limited due to the pandemic, WNC President Vincent Solis said. Courtesy Photo

Workforce development remains the future for Western Nevada College, President Vincent Solis says, and its faculty looks to use it at full force to help students interested in returning in person or online.

After navigating COVID-19’s challenges, this coming academic year might provide one of its strongest launches to giving students the innovation, preparation and access to be successful while at WNC.

Current enrollment overall is expected to be down about 5% to 7% with face-to-face recruitment efforts limited due to the pandemic, Solis said.

However, staff members will continue watching projections in the next five to six weeks, and Solis encourages anyone interested in taking classes that this fall remains “probably the most opportune time” to take advantage of registering for classes.

Solis recently shared some insights with the Nevada Appeal about what to expect as students return for the 2021-22 year, including the partnerships, projects or ongoing efforts the college has worked to establish as well some of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for WNC. Solis also is announcing a new e-sports program for students interested.

Question: What’s exciting about coming back for the 2021-22 school year?

Solis: I think lots of things are going on with us that I think are exciting about coming back. One is that, at least for now, we’re programmed to be back to our pre-COVID kind of schedule. There will be some kind of changes. We’ll do mandated masks, but we’re excited to have more students on campus for those that want to do the in-person learning, so I’m excited we’ll have a full cadre of classes – online, hybrid and the in-person, and it’ll be great to have more people back on campus as we work through the fall semester, so that’s a big one.

In terms of programs, we’re working on different things related to preparing for workforce needs. That’s a big item. Obviously, we continue our mission to provide liberal arts educations to those seeking that. We’re developing great partnerships with the University of Nevada, Reno, so students can have that transfer pathway. So, yeah, the focus is really on workforce getting people back to work and providing a great customer service experience to the students that are coming through our traditional and most used areas, which is really the liberal arts.

Q: What kind of partnerships are you looking to form this year? Anything new?

A: Yeah, we’re looking at continuing our work with (Storey County company) Blockchains. That’s an area that we continue to look at very closely because it’s going to be a high-demand area.

… We’ve got a new mobile lab for advanced manufacturing and mechatronics. And what we’re going to do with industry partners, one of the challenges is that industry, you know, it’s hard to get their folks up with the kinds of schedule they’ve got there. They’re short-staffed, they’ve got a lot of different challenges, so what we’re doing is, instead of having them come to our lab, we’re taking the lab to them. That way, they get not only the great customer service, we have the same instructors, but they get to do it in their parking lot. And that way, it allows them to do it right after work. So we’re excited about that piece in terms of taking that piece into different areas.

Another exciting project that we’re working on is growing our prison education program. That’s a program where we serve 150 students each year but we anticipate that that will grow substantially because now with the federal government’s adjustments to federal financial aid, the students in those programs will now have access so we’re preparing to gear up for significant growth in those programs. I think for the students that are being served there, there’s a low recidivism rate for individuals that receive an education. We have programs at Warm Springs Correctional Facility and Northern Nevada Correctional Facility, so we’ve got two different programs.

Q: And what will that (prison education program project) offer the community specifically?

A: I think for the students that are being served there, there’s a low recidivism rate for individuals that receive an education. We have programs at Warm Springs Correctional Facility and Northern Nevada Correctional Facility, so we’ve got two different programs. Our instructors go in, they teach. Our students work towards degrees or credentials in the areas. So it’s about giving them an opportunity. When they come out of those facilities to have better access to not only continue education but also to workforce. It’s a great job that we’re doing with them.

Q: Your Institutional Advisory Council continues to follow local economic and employment trends. What kind of work are the members doing to assist students there?

A: You know, it’s funny, we just met with our vice chancellor of community colleges, and were talking about how we continue with workforce. I think we need to continue the work of workforce. A couple of things we need to be thinking about are not new but innovative approaches to how we deal with workforce demands in the community. The model of the traditional 16-week semester for many employers and the employees in those entities may not work for them, so some of the things we’re looking at very closely are different kinds of calendars, late start classes, early start access so that if somebody missed a class that starts in September or August for example, these courses start later on and they can access them at any different time in the calendar year.

I think the other thing, as we work through the IAC, will be focused areas that are, you know where the need is at (is) health care is a huge area for us. The challenge with health care is we only have so many spots because of the demand. I think for us it’ll be a lining, a different kind of approach to how we do these some of these workforce schedulings, take remote training, you know, kind of more of the things that is needed by the industry and sector by area. So we’ve done things like I mentioned Blockchains, but we also started a ground school for those that want to continue to become pilots. There’s a huge demand in that area. The manufacturing, like I mentioned we do the mobile lab. But it’s really everything that’s in that area – automotive, welding, networking, computer information systems, the Blockchains, all of these are evolving, along with everything that happens in health care.

Q: So with the health care, are there more opportunities to grow with Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center?

A: Well, I think for all partners. One of the things we’re seeing is the uptick in demand for health care professionals because of COVID; those demands are huge. The challenge is we only have a limited number of spots, so some of the things we’ll be thinking through moving forward is what do we do with all the individuals that are in that pipeline that didn’t get into those select seats, particularly for programs like nursing. It’s high-demand, it’s a great field. It’s a lifelong kind of career and with really great pay and benefits and those kinds of things, but there’s only so many spots. The question becomes what do we do with all those students that are in these areas? How do we get them to help with the response to COVID especially through these upticks and surges that we’re seeing, so it’s really thinking how to do things a little bit differently to meet a changing landscape?

And we’ve got a really great faculty. I think one of the things that separates us from other institutions is you get not only really great faculty — and I’m not just saying that because they’re our faculty, I’ve worked with other faculty for 30 years and I think we have some of the most amazing faculty members I’ve ever seen in action, they’re just really, really good — but what they get from us is really small, personalized instruction. I think what separates us is our service and that personalized learning environment that I think students crave and have really missed over the last 15-16 months.

Q: Have you been able to respond by bringing on new faculty?

A: Yeah. Some of the challenges we have — right now, we have seven faculty positions that we’ll be trying to fill. The challenges in the market in Northern Nevada for things like housing are competitive to say the least. So that poses challenges to bring candidates from afar, but we are trying to field areas that are in high demand like biology, machine tooling, things we know for sure that once somebody gets some classes in there, they can ride into the market. Welding is another spot we’re looking at. There’s a couple of things we’re looking at not to build a program, but also to reimagine what the facilities look like, bring in the kind of technologies.

We have another projects that I think are very impressive. One is Marlette Hall is our largest face, it’s going through an entire redesign, which will be bringing it into the 21st century, so instead of being audience style, this is going to be group-style work. Things like holographic technology. It’s the latest tech tools for our teachers. We’re going through a million-dollar renovation in Fallon for our nursing and biology lab to figure out what this is going to look like.

We’ve secured two Anatomage tables, which are very unique to have at a community college simply because of the very significant expense. We’ve been very fortunate at securing grants from very benevolent foundations in the area like the Pennington Foundation. They’ve been phenomenal with us. (The Anatomage tables) are large, like giant iPads, but what they are are like digital cadavers, and these digital tools allow the instructors to teach the students in very different ways and get into some detailed, finite pieces about anatomy. That compliments our cadaver lab. We have a cadaver lab where they get to explore that work. I think for the purposes of that hands-on experience, we’re unique in many ways. Most campuses, because of the cost, don’t have the kinds of tools and labs that we have, so we’re very proud of the facilities we have. What happened, and this lab is very similar with the one in Fallon, the tools, when you look at them, it’s like, it isn’t the one with biology we went through, but we want to stay on the cutting edge of a very modern workforce.

Q: What came out of the past legislative session that we just had that you feel has impacted WNC the most?

A: A couple of things. One, thanks to the work at the session, and obviously we know they had a very difficult session, and we were still able to get support from our LED Hall Renovation. That was $1.5 million that came from them for that. We were super excited about that. Prior to that session, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) had provided us a substantial amount of the $800,000 funding that was needed for the mobile lab, so they were a big contributor to that. I want to thank the governor and all the folks that made that happen.

But the other thing that we got was the continued support for the prison education program. We’ve got some funding to continue working with those individuals and providing those services there. So there were a couple of different pockets that we received, along with some backfill in positions in our budget. Initially we had taken a budget hit. We got some temporary backfill on those items, so that was important to us. It was a difficult session. The folks obviously had some difficult decisions to make, but in terms of some of the things that played out for Western, it was a good year. We’re excited about how Marlette Hall is going to play out for students this coming year.

Q: What strategies are your staff members using to promote student growth after a challenging year like this?

A: I think one of the things that our staff and faculty in part, these learning moments we face is that the pandemic has done a lot of different things in terms of disruptions to our work, but what it’s also done is given us unique insights into the challenges that our students face on a day-to-day basis.

So when I taught my class last fall, it was in person, we all wore our masks and kept all the safety protocols in place, but there were a couple times we had to do a Zoom lecture because we had a guest visitor who was in another part of the country, but one of the learning lessons is you get to see a rare glimpse into the lives of our students. So some students may not have the space for that at home, they may have multiple people living in a one-bedroom apartment or they may have younger brothers and sisters and they’re sharing one computer, quiet spaces. We learned a lot about how students face challenges and obstacles to be successful and our goal is to help remove as many of those obstacles as possible. So we kept our library open so that individuals who needed to come in and use our WiFi or any of our tech resources. We did that in a safe manner.

The other thing we did was we created Zoom rooms, which were in play even before the pandemic. We had applied for a couple of grants to really start rethinking our technology and how we did that, so fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, because of the pandemic, we were already prepared for some of those items by seeking grants to create Zoom rooms, and then this happened, so it kind of worked out.

We also created something that was unique. We knew students were going through a hard time, so we created a food bank. NV Energy has always been a great partner but they gave us a granting opportunity, and they provided the funding source to build a new food pantry, so now that will be available to students this fall.

So if anybody is having any issues, we’ve got a food bank that they can access and take what they need to get through. We don’t want anybody to have any challenges beyond what’s happening in the classroom. Their focus should be in the class. We take care of emergency assistance through the foundation. We’ve had the best year ever through the foundation, ironically, through COVID. This was the best year we’ve had with raising dollars. Anybody who’s wanting to come to college, we’ve got money not only to pay for their classes but we also have money above that to help with paying for their educational expenses.

We’ve got the new food bank, and what’s cool about the food bank is that someone doesn’t have to come in person. One of the things we did is we started using the same technology and they can order the food over the phone. That way, they can drive by. A lot of students, they have that insecurity and they won’t access the services because some of the stigmas associated with that, so we made this high tech, and you can order it by phone. It’s a cool program, but thanks to NV Energy who that put that together.

Another thing we’re doing is, and NV Energy gave us another grant for the fall semester, is to start a diversity center to create a space where students can have programming that’s focused on how to work through difficult conversations about any topic. One of the things we do in higher education is we value ideas regardless of what the idea is and the ability more important to form critical thinking about why you support or don’t support an idea. So our goal with this is to create students that have broader skills in dealing with different ideas so when they go into the workforce, we send them much more well-rounded students with better soft skills, better communication skills, these critical thinking skills that can help them be more than just someone who can do A, B and C kind of work.

The other thing that’s going to be happening is we’re working on developing a full e-sports program, and e-sports/e-games is where students get online and they compete at different video games. This is something that’s extremely popular and people actually make a living at it. It was found through gaming. In the same way we’re developing a ground school to lead the way to become a pilot, there’s another entire area that’s emerging for the people that actually monitor the flight traffic controllers. What they’re looking for is for people with gaming backgrounds because when the students are gaming, they’re having to monitor a lot of different things on this proverbial map. That skill set is extremely important to new air traffic controllers, so the market is looking for – one of the things they ask is, ‘Do you play video games?’

So we’re creating an e-sports, e-gaming arena. And what we’re going to do with that is not just the opportunity to play games – it’s a lot more than that. It’s about building a digital culture where students can still engage, but they may not be able to while it’s happening on different parts of the campus. Now they’re going to be doing it online, so we’re creating these virtual spaces that will help not only with the gaming but we’re also looking closely at virtual reality goggles so that we can teach students different formats about what’s happening in their respective disciplines. We just don’t have a rollout date yet.

Note: This is an abridged version of the full version of this interview, which first published Aug. 14 in the Nevada Appeal, a sister news publication of the Northern Nevada Business Weekly.


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