Congressional hearing addresses need for technical skills


What can we do now to ensure the U.S.’s small-tech industry a supply of workers necessary to fulfill its potential? That’s one question the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, Committee on Science and Technology, attempted to answer during a hearing this past June. The hearing explored challenges facing U.S. industry in meeting its current and future needs for skilled technicians and production workers in advanced manufacturing and technology sectors. I was asked to testify in my capacity as principal investigator of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technology Education (ATE) Center at Penn State University and as director of the Pennsylvania Nanofabrication Manufacturing Technology (NMT) Partnership.

The ATE Center serves as a national resource for developing and disseminating nanotechnology educational programs for community colleges, community college/university joint programs, and lifetime learning. The NMT partnership, funded by Pennsylvania`s Department of Community and Economic Development since 1998, is a state-wide collaboration of 29 community colleges and universities (including Penn State), plus industry and the State of Pennsylvania. NMT has assumed the task of nanotechnology workforce development in Pennsylvania.

Value, opportunity in hands-on training

The hearing, chaired by Congressman Brian Baird (D-Wash.), explored the types of actions community colleges and companies can take to increase the number of skilled technologists in the U.S. workforce. Technical training at community colleges was a focus because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections, eight of the top-ten occupations with the largest job growth through 2014 will require an associate’s degree or vocational training.

Despite the need for workers with an advanced manufacturing and technology education, a trained workforce is not being developed at the pace required: The National Association of Manufacturers reports that 80% of manufacturers have experienced a shortage of qualified job candidates.

The hearing highlighted two basic problems in meeting U.S. industry’s current and future needs for skilled technicians and production workers in advanced manufacturing and technology sectors: attracting students into community college technical programs, and properly preparing them once they are in these programs.

Community colleges find recruiting students for technology programs to be quite difficult. As I testified, I find that at least some of the reasons for this problem lie in parental desire for students to attend a four-year degree school, a perceived-and often real-lack of clear paths to four-year degrees for students attending two-year degree schools, pervasive, nationwide apathy toward science and technology, and a lack of aggressive marketing.

Those community colleges that have the ability to offer cutting-edge technology taught by knowledgeable faculty with state-of-the-art facilities and that have pathways in place to four-year degrees offer potential students outstanding value and opportunity. Often such two-year associate-degree programs offer much more hands-on access to “real” equipment than four-year engineering and science degrees, thereby giving students a real taste of what it is like to work in a technology field and meaningful skills to do so after just two years of training. This immediate immersion and the chance for technical jobs after two years is very helpful; students can immediately get a “feel” for what these careers are like and can make more informed decisions.

These programs must not stress, for the good of the student and the long-term good of U.S. industry, today’s technology-but must instead be based on a curriculum of principles and concepts that will last through the student’s career. Those programs that have pathways in place to four-year degrees offer students a concrete route to a lifetime of learning possibilities. These advantages, opportunities, and possibilities could and should be packaged and marketed by community colleges as “two-year degrees-doors to a lifetime of opportunities” package. To make it all even better, this bundle of opportunities comes with a tuition price tag that is generally much less than the tuition costs of the four-year institutions.

Unfortunately the issue is more complicated than encouraging more students to enter into associate-degree technology programs. The challenge of how to properly prepare students once they are in the programs is at least as important.

One constant in an advanced manufacturing and technology sector such as small tech is that it is in a state of rapid evolution-and must stay that way to compete globally. Given this environment, the subcommittee asked hearing witnesses how community colleges could better prepare students to be adaptable throughout their careers to the changing needs of high-tech manufacturing. And specifically, they asked what kind of mathematics and science curricula are needed at community colleges to prepare students for today’s and tomorrow’s nanotechnology workforce.

This prompts a second question: How can community colleges handle the task of developing and offering curricula that prepare students for the lifetime of learning needed to be valuable to, and to survive in, the nanotechnology workforce? How do they garner the faculty expertise and equipment for these tasks?

The NSF Advanced Technology Education (ATE) program is crucial to addressing this question. One way the ATE program is doing this is by serving as a catalyst to bring together community colleges and research institutions to share the research university resources and expertise critical in a fast moving field; enable community college faculty enrichment; and develop new two- to four-year degree programs and pathways.

For this type of leveraging to work, not every community college needs to be directly linked to a research university in its locale. New and effective educational programming developed by an ATE center or project can be disseminated across the country through the ATE network. For example, the concepts developed at the ATE Center for Nanofabrication Manufacturing Education at Penn State are being leveraged by community colleges in more than 20 states.

The hearing underscored that there are recruitment and fundamental curriculum/expertise/equipment availability issues in community college high-tech workforce education. To address the recruitment issues, community colleges need to enhance the packaging and marketing of the outstanding opportunities they offer. One way to address the resource issues is to leverage a growing interest among research universities in joining with community colleges to address fast-moving areas such as nanotechnology. Research-intensive Land Grant universities can be particularly attracted to these arrangements since they help these universities fulfill their three-part mission of education, research, and service.

Research universities also recognize that by strengthening community college technical programs and creating student pathways from associate to baccalaureate degrees, the universities are helping to develop a pool of qualified future upper-division undergraduate and graduate students for their own programs.

As for the hearing, the house is considering legislation to enhance technical education.

Click here to enlarge image

Dr. Stephen J. Fonash holds the Bayard D. Kunkle Chair in Engineering Sciences at Penn State. He can be reached at