Community colleges preparing students for high-demand jobs

October 10, 2013 by  


By Ilyas Choudry, TMO

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Aerospace engineering students at Texas A&M University used what they learn to build an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that soared to a third-place finish in an international competition for UAVs.

There’s a new pipeline being built in Texas. But, what’s coming through this pipeline is a steady supply of much-needed engineers to take their place in an industry with an abundance of employment prospects in the state with very attractive salaries.

In recent years, community colleges throughout the country have begun partnering with industry representatives to prepare students with the skill sets necessary not only to prepare them for the workforce, but also to help bridge the gap between qualified workers and the workforce needs of local and regional industries. These programs are often funded by state and local grant money as well as funds from a variety of industries in the form of everything from scholarships for students in the program to providing equipment on which these students can be trained.

But, Houston Community College (HCC) and The University of Texas at Tyler are going a step farther – partnering on an innovative program to help meet the nation’s critical shortage of engineers.

“We are excited about building ‘the New Texas Pipeline’ which produces a highly educated workforce based on access and opportunity for all,” said Zachary R. Hodges, president of HCC Northwest. To reach that goal, HCC has created the first academic associate degree program that does not require core completion. HCC front-loads the math, physics and engineering part of the program and then postpones some of the core requirement until the student transfers to UT Tyler, which has facilities located on the second floor of one of the HCC campuses. Mark Tiller, associate dean of instructional support at HCC, says this arrangement “addresses a long-standing problem for engineering students who are not truly ready – in terms of prerequisites – for the third year of engineering because they had to take all of the core first.”

The four-year engineering degree program is currently part of the HCC campus in Alief. It allows students to obtain an engineering degree in the normal four-year time period from UT Tyler, without leaving the HCC Alief-Hayes Campus. Students also can save nearly 50 percent on tuition costs. Not only does the program benefit the student, but it also is designed to support the engineering field and the businesses which need to fill highly skilled job openings.

Tiller said that although many say the highest demand is for electrical, chemical, mechanical, petroleum and civil engineering, the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that there is also a high demand for some specialty sub-fields such as bio-medical engineering. “However, the demand for engineers is so great, especially in the local economy, that employment prospects are excellent in just about all fields and will only get better.”

The need for additional engineers is particularly prevalent in the Energy Corridor of West Houston, explained Tiller. And, because the HCC campus is right in the middle of that corridor, the HCC-UT Tyler partnership will help meet those needs in that area.

The advantage to the students is that they will be able to complete a bachelor’s degree from UT Tyler without leaving the HCC campus. “A student who completes our two-year Associate of Science in Engineering Science with us will be perfectly prepared for only two more years with The University of Texas at Tyler on our Alief-Hayes Road campus,” said Tiller, “so that it is genuinely a four-year bachelor’s program in West Houston.” The program director said all credit in the degree program is guaranteed to transfer as the equivalent of UT Tyler’s first two years.

The industry is showing its support for the program as local engineering firms are considering scholarships, sponsorships and internships for students in the program. Tiller said the cost of the entire four-year program if taken at HCC and finished at UT Tyler is less than $19,000 in tuition and fees.

That’s a pretty fair exchange for an education that leads to an engineering degree thanks to a program sanctioned by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, especially when a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering paid an average annual salary of $78,160 just three years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median pay for a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering was $87,180. Average salaries for all engineers ranged from $76,100 to $114,080.

As community colleges continue to play an important role in preparing students for high-demand industries, these and other kinds of partnerships with four-year institutions of higher education and business and industry will continue to grow. In fact, Tiller points out that HCC Northwest already is looking forward to opening a “very innovative campus” in two years that will focus on the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) “with new teaching methods, with lots of opportunities for experimentation, invention and collaboration.”

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