06/24/2013 11:30 am ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

Making Career Training Soup From Stones

It seems like every day there is a new story on how our higher education system is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. While rising tuition costs and the student loan debt crisis certainly paint a negative picture of higher education in the publics' mind, these issues do not tell the whole story.

Across the United States, there are plenty of community and technical colleges working hard to provide students with innovative training in high-demand fields at very reasonable costs. Case in point: Northeast Texas Community College (NTCC) in Mount Pleasant, Texas.
We are a small rural college in a region that was hard-hit by the recession. Several of our major employers folded and we saw many of our neighbors moving on to greener pastures. As a community, we had to find a way to get people back to work.

There were several major roadblocks in making this happen: a) our economy is largely based on manufacturing jobs that require specific skills, b) NTCC did not currently offer training programs to teach those skills, and c) the college did not have the money to implement new programs on its own.

So we put our heads together with community leaders and got creative! Through conversations with local industry, we discovered the greatest labor shortage was in industrial technology. With this information, we assembled a team of strategic partners that included NTCC, the local Industrial Development Corporation, and our largest local school district.

Once all three partners embraced the vision, the college and high school examined existing career programs to find any which should be included in the project. The curricular overlap with the existing electrical trades program at the high school level was obvious, so that was added to the scope of the project. The idea for an Industrial Technology Training Center (ITTC) was born, but we still had to find a way to pay for it.

The problem of funding was quickly addressed once the community recognized the value of the partnership and saw a real opportunity for young people to learn a trade that would support local industry at a good salary. The ITTC began as a $1 million project but grew to $2.8 million because of the support at local, state and federal levels. In less than two years, this project was completely paid for, fully operational, and turning out graduates employed at $40,000 per year or more - a speed-to-market virtually unheard of for training programs like this.

Other gaps identified in the original labor market surveys have become possible as unanticipated opportunities arose. For example, there was no local Computer Aided Design (CAD) program at the time this began. Now the college is offering a course in CAD and plans are underway to expand this into a full program.

Given the need for speed and flexibility, the Industrial Technology program was designed to allow students to begin at one of several dates each semester and to work as quickly as their ability and effort allow. The program uses industry-approved curriculum which is available from any computer - home, college, library, or internet café. Students have maximum opportunity to pursue their studies. Skills and knowledge are demonstrated in the lab at the ITTC with instructors.

Such an approach has been the Holy Grail in career education for a long time. But few programs actually operate this way because of inherent resistance to change within the educational bureaucracy (local, state and federal). Designing the program to operate this way from the beginning, combined with the right leadership (at the operational administration level) has resulted in a program that actually works!

The program has worked so well that it has been hailed by economic development organizations, state officials and educators as a model. Did I mention that the cost of attendance for our level one certificate is less than $3,000 for local students? For less than the cost of one class at many universities, a student can get the tools they need to go out and make a respectable living for his or her family.

For those who feel discouraged by all of the negative news about higher education, I challenge you to look beyond the headlines to see that there really are great things happening out there - possibly in your own community.