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2011 September 19 - 12:00 am

POV: Texas Introduces Technical Careers to a New Generation of Students

Garry Tomerlin

Tarrant County College, which serves Fort Worth, Texas, and the greater Tarrant County area, was recently awarded a Carl D. Perkins state leadership grant by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The Career Pathways to Student Success grant is a continuation of work begun two years earlier to develop a statewide energy technician curriculum career pathway.

The career pathway initiative is a collaborative partnership between TCC and other community colleges in Texas. The career pathway project has been led by advisory leadership teams from Dallas County Community College District, Midland College, San Jacinto Community College District, Tyler Junior College, Navarro College, Texas State Technical College-West Texas and the Alamo Community College District and industry advisors.

The project began when industry partners contacted a group of community colleges to discuss the need to train replacement workers for the anticipated wave of baby boomers who are expected to retire from the energy industry in the next few years. While this will create numerous job openings nationwide, employers are having difficulty finding a new generation of qualified employees to fill these jobs. Technical education programs are not attracting adequate numbers of new students to replace retiring workers. With the current economic downturn the nation is facing, an emphasis is returning to technical education.

“We’re trying to re-innovate these programs to respond to the industry needs and provide students with workforce jobs,” said Don Perry, director of educational planning and policy for the Dallas Community College District. The current workforce, in industries such as petrochemical, oil and gas, power generation, instrumentation and other industrial sectors is beginning to retire. Many energy companies are questioning how they will fill those positions if young people aren’t entering these fields.

After the initial meetings, TCC submitted a grant proposal to the coordinating board to develop an energy career cluster and an assessment process to equate specialized industry training to college credit for workers seeking to complete an associate degree. The proposal was funded and the work began.

TCC organized several workshops and meetings throughout Texas to unite energy industry experts and faculty who teach energy-related courses to identify the sequence of courses and the end-of-course learning outcomes essential for students to be successful as energy technicians.

“This is a chance for us to totally change the philosophy of technical programs. We’re not creating a model just for the state of Texas, but for the nation; we need to do something now,” Nathan Sprinkle, senior training specialist for Entergy Texas, Inc., said during one of the workshops.

The courses represent the foundational knowledge and skills, as identified by the workshop participants, required of all energy technicians. Collectively these courses compose the Energy Technician Career Foundation Core (CFC). A CFC is a special type of certificate approved by the coordinating board that any community or technical college can adopt. One of the goals of the project leaders, and of the industry partners, is for all community colleges in Texas which offer energy-related programs to adopt the Energy Technician CFC.

The industry partners liked the concept of the CFC, essentially the first-year experience of a two-year degree, because students would have a common set of knowledge and skills. Separate second-year specializations include: power generation, oil and gas extraction, and process technology. The process technology specialization had been developed previously by the Gulf Coast Process Technology Alliance.

During the first year of the project, faculty and administrators, guided by industry experts, worked to develop a series of courses to be included in the state’s technical course database, Workforce Education Course Manual, a common repository of courses shared by all Texas community colleges. While Texas community colleges share a common database of courses, they do not work at the program level to deliver similar content across the state.

During the coming year, the project team plans to have teams develop course learning outcomes and course guides. While many are opposed to the concept of course or learning standardization, the project is working to develop a career pathway that meets the standards identified by industry. Texas community colleges are beginning to adopt the energy career cluster curriculum developed by the project. During the most recent project workshop, educational administrators from Louisiana attended the meeting as observers, and they are considering adopting the same curriculum model at their college because they support many of the same employers. Educators and industry experts from other states have inquired about the project and expressed interest in replicating the career pathway in their state.

By reintroducing these industries to high school and college students, faculty and administrators hope to meet the needs that industry partners continue to identify and emphasize. By presenting earning opportunities, job placement programs and job stability statistics, perhaps it will be worth a second glance to new students. Traditional “know-how” has taken a backseat to more advancement in computer skills and software development.

According to Catherine O’Brien, associate vice chancellor of learning at San Jacinto Community College, even re-introducing basic hand tool skills could prove to be beneficial.

“These kids come out with ‘game boy’ and computer skills, so to speak, but ask them the difference between a flat head and a Phillips head screwdriver, and they look confused,” O’Brien said. “It’s time to bring back some ‘farm boy’ aspects into these technical programs so that they have common knowledge across the board regarding these industries.”

The author has served as project director of the Energy Career Pathway Project.
He is a doctoral candidate at Tarleton State University.

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