Skills Training à la Carte

Community colleges have long tailored courses to meet the demands of local employers, but Kellogg Community College’s Regional Manufacturing Technology Center has taken customizable workforce training to a whole new level.

The community college’s workforce training center, in Battle Creek, Mich., has done away with traditional classroom-bound courses altogether and, instead, has cut up its offerings into more than 1,200 individual skills, or “modules,” that students can take whenever they wish on a walk-in basis. These modules, which can be purchased independently or as part of a larger program of study, are worth fractions of a credit hour. Students have an unlimited amount of time to prove their competency in the specified skill to an on-site instructor; some of the skills can be learned in few short hours.

The skills are divided up into seven programs, ranging from electronics to welding, and then subdivided further into “units.” To give a specific example, a machine tool student can learn up to seven individual skills within the “precision measurement” unit. A “module” on how to read and use a micrometer, for instance, is worth 0.13 credit hours, takes the average student about three hours to learn, and costs $20.94.

The center’s program builder, which allows online users to browse and register to learn specific skills, might appear as frustratingly open-ended to a directionless student as a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel to a young reader; however, Kellogg officials say the highly customizable nature of the center’s training is a perfect fit for employers who want their employees to have specific skills and to cut the fat associated with classroom-bound training methods.

“We found that the traditional college structure didn’t work very well for some of the people who we were training for the work force,” says G. Edward Haring, president of Kellogg. “Those very rigid programs, frankly, weren’t as skill-intensive. Now, all of our skills-development is competency based. Employers love the flexibility of our program as their demands fluctuate.”

Typically, about two-thirds of the students who pass through the center each year are incumbent workers learning skills to retrain or retool on their company’s dime. In a further twist on the traditional methods of workforce training, companies who send their employees to the center at Kellogg have to pay only for those who prove their competency in the skills for which they are being trained.

“Everywhere else, employers have to pay up front,” Haring explains. “Or as we like to call it, pay your money and take your chances. Here, employers are actually paying for the skills learned. It’s a guarantee of sorts. It’s no longer risky for employer-sponsored people.”

Being both cost-effective and highly customizable, Haring believes, Kellogg’s training center is beating its for-profit competitors at their own game. As the more than 1,200 skills at the center have already been identified and set training is in place, there is almost no overhead cost built into the tuition cost at the center, something Haring argues Kellogg’s nearby for-profit and traditional community college training competitors cannot claim.

Though one local employer did not emphasize the center’s low-cost offerings in his rationale for sending employees to Kellogg for training, he lauded the work-ready quality of its graduates compared to those who trained at more traditional community colleges nearby.

“We’re a small company so we let our employees train at whatever community college was nearest to them, depending on where they live,” says James L. Sertic, executive manager of AccroSeal, a manufacturer of tools made out of industrial polymers. “We worked with the community colleges to tell them what we’d like. Our students at Kellogg took 40 different modules specified to the skills we wanted, whereas our students at other community colleges took 12 or so broader classes. The major difference is the Kellogg students did work focused on particular kinds of equipment, so that the things they learned in class they could apply immediately at work the next day. They also took some math modules, as well, but they didn’t have to take a whole semester of that. They were able to reinforce what they learned in a timelier manner than our students who trained at the other colleges.”

Still, some nearby employers remain unconvinced that Kellogg’s unconventional method of work force training is best suited for their employees.

“There are some companies that call me and say, ‘We don’t like this,’ ” says Laura Ann DePompolo, director of Kellogg’s Regional Manufacturing Technology Center. “They want to send them more as a cohort. A lot of people think that the only way you can teach someone is to stand up and talk at them. But, there are some things you can’t learn the same way an instructor tells you. There’s a difference in what you deliver and what you package to deliver. We ensure that students are learning skills one module at a time.”

Upon talking with some of the instructors who work at the center, it becomes clear there is no such thing as an average day, both for them and the students they serve. The Kellogg facility is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, during which time any student can walk in to start learning a skill and progress at his or her own pace. The center has six full-time faculty members for each of the umbrella programs in which the 1,200-plus “modules” are grouped. They provide face-to-face, hands-on assistance to students as needed, both for learning a skill and assessing their ultimate competency.

Students are given a “module packet” for each skill they want to learn, outlining the course description alongside the learning and assessment activities that must be completed. Then, they must read any assigned materials, complete study questions, and watch any computer simulations or training videos required for the skill. Finally, they participate in a hands-on demonstration of the technical skill in the presence of an instructor — such as the prior example of using a micrometer — with at least 90 percent accuracy before they can move on.

“The open-entry, open-exit format of this training can be the best thing and the worst thing,” says Kevin Barnes, industrial electronics instructor. “It can go from a ghost town back here to being totally swamped in half an hour, depending on who shows up. Still, it helps keep me on my toes. I’ll typically have six or seven students back here in about five different units, and I’m constantly going from one concentration to another. There are some instances where students in my area are waiting for me to get done with someone else. You would think it would be tough getting everyone through like this, but surprisingly it’s not. It’s spread out enough that there are few instances where people get tired of waiting around for me to help them.”

All of the full-time instructors at the center are certified journeymen in their profession who were recruited for this brand of nontraditional instruction. Kellogg officials argue that having instructors buy into this skill-centric method prior to their arrival is critical to its success, noting that some classroom-bound instructors are not likely to last long at the center. Given the touch-and-go nature of his day, Barnes admits this type of instruction is not for everyone.

“When I talk to some of my colleagues at other community colleges about my work here, they cringe,” Barnes said. “But, you’ve got to be open. In my case, I’ve never known anything different, so I guess ignorance is bliss.”

The annual student headcount at the center has remained relatively static for the past five or so years, as seen in the table below. But all at Kellogg describe the center — which has been around for more than a decade — as a success. The skill-centric model has attracted officials not only from the state of Michigan but from all around the country who want to replicate it. Kellogg officials, however, admit it might not work for everyone.

“You can only start to do something like this because a company says they have a need for it,” says DePompolo, admitting that Kellogg’s relatively small size and its rather rural surroundings might also contribute to its success. “We go through this with people from outside states all the time, but you need to have the support to tackle something like this.”

Given all the talk from the Obama administration about encouraging more community colleges to align their workforce training with actual jobs, some outside observers say that the skill-specific, rather than credential-specific, training offered by Kellogg could be a model for others around the country to consider.

“I think that model is fantastic,” says Harry Snyder, adult work force division vice president for the Association for Career and Technical Education, a federal lobbying group based in Alexandria, Va. “As a learner, I’m frustrated when I have to go back for an educational certification and take a class I took five years ago with the same content. I already have those skills and knowledge, and I have to sit through a class to learn things I could care less about. My time is valuable. There’s sometimes a frustration from the employer standpoint that what they need is specific skill training. Sometimes we’re too general for them. I like this concept of being very specialized.” (Inside Higher Ed)

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