Educating for the future
From drones to electric cars, biofuels to batteries, northern Nevada has seen an influx of new and expanding industries in recent years.
Keeping pace with changing employer job demands is no easy task for community colleges and the University of Nevada, Reno.
But it’s a task for which community colleges are well suited, says Kyle Dalpe, interim dean of technical sciences at Truckee Meadows Community College.
Community colleges, Dalpe says, have two main missions: to serve as a gateway for students interested in advanced degrees, and to provide career and technical training for students seeking manufacturing, production or skilled trades jobs.
“It’s something community colleges have always done,” says Dalpe, “and the community depends on us for that. That is what we are here to do, to meet the needs of the local economy. The jobs that are coming in are in manufacturing, logistics, and production, and training people to work those jobs is what community colleges should be doing.”
TMCC, as do the other postsecondary institutions in the region, has a sure-fired way to ensure its curriculum meets the needs of regional employers — it continually meets with company CEOs, hiring managers and department heads to determine what skills potential employees for new and existing companies need.
In recent years, that’s meant gaining the ear of executives at Amazon, Apple, Tesla, Switch and other big-name businesses.
For those companies, TMCC adjusted its production systems curriculum to ensure students are well versed in the latest production, assembly and machining methods, often with an emphasis in robotics. With Switch, it meant adjusting its HVAC training program to ensure students understood the requirements of commercial heating, cooling and ventilation systems since cooling is a vital component of data center operations.
Colleges also work hand-in-hand with the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada to identify the types of companies scouting northern Nevada so they can be prepared to meet those employers’ needs, Dalpe says.
“TMCC has a place on EDAWN’s board so we see which industries they are trying to attract,” he says. “A lot of times, when companies do a site visit, we are on their list because they definitely need a trained workforce. We connect with the CEOs to see what kind of training they need and how can we develop curriculum around it.”
It’s the same process at Western Nevada College. Dr. Georgia White, director of career and technical education, says most big-name companies do outreach for career and technical education to make sure career-oriented colleges are providing the right kind of training so students meet industry standards — and that training usually puts them at the head of the hiring queue, White notes.
For example, White says, Panasonic has written the requisite Manufacturing Technician Level 1 certification into many of its job ads for production workers. According to the Manufacturing Skills Institute, production workers who hold this designation are trained in computer-aided drafting and computer controlled machine programming and maintenance, as well as process and machine trouble-shooting, problem solving and use of diagnostic and statistical tools — just the skill set needed to work in the world’s largest electric car/battery production facility.
WNC also has brought in mechatronics training, White adds, to meet the needs of electrical, mechanical and computer engineering firms such as high-tech giant Siemens.
“We try to build curriculum not to just get students prepared for entry or above-entry jobs, but to develop programs where they can gain skills throughout their career,” White says. “When an industry says it is bringing in jobs, they are also bringing career paths for potential employees in that organization. We make sure we are looking at careers for an individual so they can progress in that organization. It is important we train Nevadans for Nevada jobs.”
Although classes often can handle higher head counts, the students that do enroll know they are positioning themselves for jobs once their education is complete.
“When employers state they are looking for specific training or credentials, that will get you a first look, and that certainly helps students make a decision,” White says. “They are interested in putting in the tuition, training and time because they know their payoff will be the job.”
Things work a bit differently at University of Nevada, Reno, says Provost Kevin Carman, who oversees all academic programs at UNR. While career training is the bailiwick of community colleges, UNR’s role is to education students in the myriad support roles that make businesses work.
“A big company like Tesla needs HR, accountants, communications specialists, IT people — basically everything you can image,” Carman says.
UNR has created several new degree paths so students can land high-paying jobs at some of the new businesses calling northern Nevada home, including undergraduate degrees in batteries and energy storage technologies (Tesla, Panasonic), cyber security (Amazon) and autonomous systems (Flirty).
UNR also has created a five-year business/engineering degree where students also earn an MBA so they have some strong business acumen to dovetail with their engineering background.
To understand the needs of regional business, UNR works hand-in-hand with regional companies — reps from Tesla, Microsoft, IGT, Charles River Labs and others serve on the universities advisory board and have direct input on the types of educational programs the college develops.
“We try to maintain a steady dialogue with the private sector,” Carman says. “We are very conscious that the most important thing we can do to serve the need of industry is to maintain that steady dialogue, so they understand what we have to offer and we understand what their needs are.”
Q-and-A with UNR President Sandoval: ‘We’re going to strengthen our relationships with private industry’
“Economic diversification is inextricably intertwined with higher education and the university,” former Gov. Brian Sandoval told the NNBW last week. Read more in a Q-and-A with the UNR president, in which he discusses the university’s role in the economy and what opportunities are on the horizon in 2021 and beyond.