As the need for affordable education grows, community colleges are well positioned to provide post-secondary degrees, credentials or training to meet workforce needs. They are more affordable than four-year schools, and, despite past stigmas, Americans rate the quality of community college education about the same as that of four-year colleges, according to a Gallup poll.
LaGuardia Community College in Queens, NY was recently awarded $3.9 million in federal grants to provide at-risk, disadvantaged young people with free tech industry training. The grants are part of a White House and U.S. Department of Labor initiative called TechHire that sponsors 39 similar programs across the U.S. to help position participants for high-growth, well-paying information technology jobs that require skills such as coding, software development and systems management.
“We want to build a bridge from students who have very little expertise to students who are fluent in tech skills and can gain employment,” explains Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College.
LaGuardia’s program, known as TechIMPACT, will partner with tech education companies including General Assembly, Udacity and The Software Guild to provide accelerated tech training for more than 300 low-income young adults over the next three years.
“We think it is critical that tech jobs are taken by the diversity of people who make up America—namely women and people of color,” Mellow says.
Francesca Fiore, assistant dean of workforce development at the college, talks about an emerging technology ecosystem in Queens that inspired LaGuardia to find ways to expand technology education.
Fiore works to help students take ownership of their careers by creating training programs that provide practical skills, and aligning LaGuardia’s degree program curricula so students can seamlessly continue their education at the associate’s degree level.
TechIMPACT aligns with this philosophy. Fiore says tech is an industry that provides students with an opportunity to gain valuable skills at a high-level job that does not necessarily require a degree right off the bat.
“A lot of people hear about tech jobs and think they will be hard. And, if you don’t know someone working in tech, you probably won’t choose that as a career path,” she explains. Fiore hopes TechIMPACT will help students who might not picture themselves as having a future in a tech position gain the skills and confidence to thrive in this industry.
To help drive program success and completion, participants will receive free support services including MetroCards, childcare and mentors. Large companies including IBM, WalMart and Xerox have signed on as hiring partners to interview qualified graduates of the program.
LaGuardia received the TechHire grant in June and is in the midst of planning coursework. Fiore says the college always tries to have industry experts teach courses and expects to do so for TechIMPACT. Some of the course content—specifically, materials from Udacity and The Software Guild—will be delivered online. Fiore emphasizes that the program will be flexible, “to accommodate different learning styles and career goals,” and informed by industry.
“I see this as a huge win not just for LaGuardia, but also for New York City to create strong ties between businesses and tech education,” Fiore says.
TechIMPACT follows in the line of many successful LaGuardia initiatives, including a partnership with Goldman Sachs to build a small business education center, and an economic development program NYDesigns, which helps small business entrepreneurs start and grow companies.
Fiore recalls one program in particular that helped define LaGuardia’s approach to employer engagement: the Medical Billing Certificate Program. The program partners with Weill Cornell Medicine to provide tuition-free training for adults who are unemployed, underemployed, or looking for a stable long-term job.
The program came about when the Harvard Business School Club of New York identified a critical skills gap where employers were struggling to fill good-paying positions due to a shortage of properly trained candidates. Working with LaGuardia, it developed the medical billing program to help fill this need.
Fiore says she is particularly proud of this initiative, because it is the first program where LaGuardia took an employer-heavy approach to curriculum design and saw success.
She tells the story of one single mother working multiple hourly-wage jobs, who completed the program, was promoted at Weill Cornell in less than a year, and is now completing her associate’s degree at LaGuardia.
Mellow says there is a growing appreciation for community colleges as a foundational part of American public higher education. “If America is going to educate the middle-skilled employees that we desperately need to fill jobs, you have to understand that will happen at community colleges.”