Connect with community colleges for a stronger workforce

Collaborative programs benefit employers, colleges, and students.

By Jim Meyers September 26, 2019

Education of our young people is an important foundation for our future. Replenishing the industrial workforce is also crucial to our country’s progress. At the intersection of these two ideas are community colleges – a great source of employees in a wide range of fields.

Many community colleges have a strong focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Many students prefer two-year schools over a four-year college experience. Community colleges provide a faster, lower-cost route to good-paying jobs. Students also like the flexible schedules, smaller class sizes and online learning opportunities.

Industrial organizations have a lot to gain from collaborative programs with community colleges. And there are a variety of ways to work together. Following are three examples of industrial organizations working with community colleges – providing stronger education while meeting potential employees. Each of these stories includes some how-to advice, and could be a model for other programs.

College of the Canyons/Brown Engineers

Brown Engineers of Little Rock, Arkansas, was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant of $225,000 to develop a curriculum in water engineering for students in high school and two-year colleges. The content is being piloted at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., to see how the curriculum could be enhanced to benefit water training at community colleges. The content includes interactive training that allows students to be engineers at water/wastewater facilities in a simulated environment. Included are operation of systems for human-machine interface (HMI) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). Brown Engineers also created a hands-on, design-build, water treatment plant kit for students.

Regina Blasberg, chair of the Engineering Technologies Department at College of the Canyons, said this type of training is very beneficial for students. “It’s a safe environment for students to play,” Blasberg said. “Students can learn without having the feeling that they could break something.”

Collaboration with industry is a key factor for the school. “Here in California, we’re required to collaborate,” Blasberg said. “Every community college here, by law, is required to work collaboratively with our industry partners. We do that primarily through our advisory board meetings.”

Industry members on the advisory board give input on curriculum, equipment, employment trends and more. “We ask whether we’re meeting the needs of employers,” Blasberg said. “Do the students have the skills they need to be successful? Are we using the right equipment?” Keeping the curriculum current and relevant is good for the school, the students and organizations seeking quality employees.

Brown Engineers applied for the grant to explore the idea of using gaming and simulation to teach young people about water/wastewater treatment (see Figure 1). “I thought if we could teach students with a simulation environment, that would be pretty neat,” said Ben Rainwater, electrical engineer with Brown Engineers. “I thought of SCADA and water/wastewater, and the types of projects we build for our clients.”

Figure 2: Interactive training simulations are popular with students and complement other types of collaborations, including internships, job shadowing, field trips, and more. Courtesy: Inductive Automation[/caption]

The college has found course instructors from the ranks of its industry partners. It also received help from industry when it converted all textbooks to open documents that are freely available for students.

Employers see benefits too. “They get a free look at potential employees,” Blasberg said. “And when our local utility was doing internships, they said it was phenomenally beneficial to their own employees – because those employees got to train someone. Every time you teach someone, you learn something too.”

Cuyamaca College/large water district

“All the water districts are facing the need for certified replacement staff,” said Henry Palechek, information and process control supervisor for a large water district in California. “And you can’t run a treatment plant without enough education. The community colleges can help meet this need.” 

Palechek has a broad view of the issue, since he works in the industry and also teaches young people about it at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon, California. Palechek teaches three courses: instrumentation and controls, basic water treatment and advanced water treatment.

He’s proud of the school’s many accomplishments. For example, the school wanted a hands-on system for students, so it built a SCADA system for training. Ignition SCADA software provides students with training on a standards-based, open platform – giving students experience with software they could work with during their professional careers.

Cuyamaca got a grant, and built a hands-on demonstration facility, where we have two water tanks,” said Palechek. “I think they’re 14-foot-high tanks with two 7.5-hp motors and pump control valves. And we automated that with the SCADA talking to a couple of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and a touchscreen. I don’t think there are many places west of the Rockies that have a system like that.”

It’s a great example of how vendors, water districts and others can help a school do its very important job. “When they built the demonstration facility, there was some grant money, and Cuyamaca put up some money and the community also pitched in,” Palechek said. “A lot of the piping, and some money in general was thrown in by pump and valve vendors, for example. And some of the water districts wrote checks. It really was a team effort.”

Palechek also noted that utilities can support education with tuition reimbursement programs. This can help people get the classes they need for their certifications. “Community college is a cost-effective solution for that,” Palechek said.

For those looking to start collaborative programs with schools, he suggested leveraging progress made by others previously. Talk to an organization or community college that’s already doing something. A lot of instructors will share curriculum. See what others have done, and ask for help and guidance. “People want to share their knowledge,” Palechek said.

And don’t forget that many community colleges offer plenty of hands-on experience for students. “That’s pretty important,” Palechek said. “When we want to hire people, we’ll ask them to assemble something, and we’ll lay out different tools. Do they grab the right tool for the job?” When a water district works directly with a school, it can help ensure that graduates have some real-world knowledge when they graduate. Cuyamaca’s hands-on SCADA system is a good example. “It’s modern, state-of-the-art SCADA software,” Palechek said. “So the students get to use something that wasn’t written 20 or 30 years ago.”

The school benefits, as do students and employers. “I’ve seen water districts all over the place hire Cuyamaca graduates,” Palechek said. “I think more than half of our operators here at the plant came through the Cuyamaca program.”

Folsom Lake College/Inductive Automation

The Innovation Center Makerspace at Folsom Lake College (FLC) in Folsom, Calif., is a place where students share knowledge, enthusiasm and effort on a wide variety of projects (see Figure 3). The space encourages students to create, and allows them to develop skills in laser cutting, water-jet cutting, 3-D printing, 3-D scanning, audio and video recording and much more (see Figure 4).

Inductive Automation provides funding for the purchase of lab equipment. The company also has pilot projects planned with the lab and college to use Inductive Automation’s Ignition as an HMI/SCADA platform for the school’s aquaponics project and chemistry lab courses (see Figure 5).

Figure 6: At Folsom Lake College’s Innovation Center Makerspace, students from a variety of disciplines collaborate on all kinds of projects. Courtesy: Inductive Automation[/caption]

Dowell and Mahoney appreciate the support Makerspace gets from collaborating with a local company. “Inductive Automation has been a fantastic and longstanding partner, going back a long time,” Dowell said. “In very real ways, the company believed in us before we had anything to show for it.”

“We like this program a lot,” said Kent Melville, sales engineer at Inductive Automation. “Because too often education provides academic knowledge but very little practical knowledge. Graduates thus aren’t ready to contribute immediately. Programs like the Makerspace turn this model on its head. As companies sponsor this new method of learning today, the result is a workforce ready to solve the problems of tomorrow.”

Jim Meyers is success manager at Inductive Automation, maker of the Ignition industrial application platform for SCADA, HMI and IIoT.

This article appears in the Applied Automation supplement for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering.

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Jim Meyers is communications manager at Inductive Automation, creator of the Ignition industrial application platform for SCADA, HMI, IIoT and more.