Valve manufacturers and distributors are scrambling to find young workers who will be the next generation of engineers and managers. While the competition to recruit from four-year colleges is tough, some observers maintain that a supply of talented employees is closer than most companies realize: associate-degree technicians.
These graduates of two-year technical colleges don’t have the engineering background of their four-year-college counterparts, but have been trained in areas that are application oriented and are capable of moving into entry-level positions and, importantly, advancing with on-the-job training and additional coursework.
Experts point out that associate-degree colleges have long attracted students who are older and more focused on career training than many students at four-year schools. In a global economy that places a premium on technical expertise, workers can expect to change jobs multiple times and learn different skills. Two-year colleges are important and accessible ways to train and retrain these workers.
The colleges are thus selling points for businesses looking to expand or locate operations in neighboring areas. As a result, their curricula are constantly updated to stay current with companies’ needs.
Two-year colleges also attract professionals seeking career changes—so much so that one educator in Texas calls them “the graduate schools of the 21st century.”
State and federal support of these schools is sizeable and ongoing. In one notable expansion, Richland College in Dallas is developing a campus in nearby Garland, TX that will be primarily for workforce training, rather than a steppingstone to a four-year program. Slated to open in 2009, it’s one of five new campuses that are part of a $450-million state-funded package of improvements for Texas community colleges.
One proponent of hiring associate-degree technicians is Glen W. Spielbauer. He has a two-year degree in electronics technology and is a systems technician at Continental Electronics, a manufacturer of radio transmitters in Dallas. He has also worked for a packaging company, co-owned a factory automation business, done consulting work, written for trade magazines and is a member of the American Technical Education Association.
As he has progressed in his work, Spielbauer has returned to technical college for additional training in areas such as circuit design, computer architecture, calculus, physics and engineering management. He also received a B.A. in General Studies from the University of Texas in Dallas.
Spielbauer believes that industry needs to look closely at the value these graduates bring to companies, and tailor recruiting and advancement policies accordingly. Employers should hire associate-degree technicians not just for the shop floor, but with an eye toward promoting them to sales, marketing and management.
Some companies do this, but Spielbauer says more should familiarize themselves with the courses that are a staple of technical colleges. “A lot of human resources departments don’t understand how advanced these courses are,” he notes.
Coursework at many colleges routinely includes training in the latest CAD/CAM and CNC software, along with courses in hydraulics, pneumatics, industrial electronics and coordinate measuring systems.
Courses proposed for the Garland campus, for example, include applied physics, statistical process control, process chain and inventory management, lean manufacturing, continuous quality principles and OSHA rules. There will also be courses in basic mechanics, reading blueprints, workplace and management software, and Spanish.
Spielbauer says more companies, industry associations and labor groups are involved in helping technical colleges develop areas of study. The colleges themselves are actively recruiting high school students—a high-value target for industry—in an effort to interest them in technical and manufacturing careers.
The future looks good for technical colleges, and for the benefits they provide to industry. In an upcoming article, we’ll report on ways that manufacturers can work with local colleges to develop relevant coursework.