How a Community College Maximizes Industry Relevance

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Gateway Community College, Enhanced Operator Program
© Gateway Community and Technical College


Applying TPM to our existing program has allowed us to be agile while remaining focused on customer success.
Employers drive the curriculum conversation to ensure we provide students training for the most relevant skills.

In Talent Pipeline Management (TPM), Continuous Improvement is the last of the six-strategy framework. However, as the strategy’s title indicates, TPM is never truly complete.  

Gateway Community and Technical College’s enhanced operator (EO) program is the story of a traditional manufacturing program that was transformed and modernized to meet people where they are.

By all accounts, applying TPM principles to the existing program has been very valuable. We have learned to be agile while remaining focused on customer success. Through this process we have been able to add value to the bottom line by decreasing time and costs, a benefit to both employers and students. 

TIME 1 year12 weeks14 weeks

To learn more about the program’s transformation in detail, read the post we published a few years ago. Today, we’re focusing on the work we’ve put into our continuous improvement to make sure that success continues to grow.

A Dedicated Effort to Feedback

It’s rare that any program hits the nail on the head the first time around and the EO program has been no exception. We took Strategy 6 of the TPM process seriously and established a dedicated effort to gather feedback from students and employers on a continual basis. This feedback loop has made it possible to get to where we are today. 

As we have undergone several iterations of continuous improvement, one thing has not changed: employers drive the curriculum conversation from beginning to end to ensure we are providing students training for the most relevant industry skills.  

As a Result, Two Big, Critical Changes

One of the first changes we made to the EO program was to split the program into two tracks, a direct result of student and employer feedback. Consensus determined that the content in the first six credit hours was fitting of an entry-level candidate while the remaining eight credit hours focused on higher-level skills better suited for a supervisor or experienced employee advancing to another position. 

It can be daunting to dismantle a composed program, but our first priority is ensuring that the curriculum provides a smooth user experience aligned to appropriate skill levels. 

Not every community college can have one, but our Workforce Solutions division allows us more flexibility to be responsive to employer needs—and determine what works well and what doesn’t before we offer the programs to more students in our academic division. This was a perfect place to pilot the new two-track format. Here we were able to test the revision’s sustainability and work out the kinks before transitioning the program to the academic division. 

Why would we transfer something that is working well in the Workforce Solutions division?

The academic division offers several advantages for long-term sustainability of the program, such as eligibility for federal student financial aid and access to student support services such as tutoring, counseling, and free transportation through our public transit system. Now that the two-track model is within the academic division, we can better serve our students and expand the first track program to high school students and second-chance populations exploring career pathways in manufacturing and construction trades.

The second change we made is a curriculum adjustment that is currently underway. We identified specific skills within applied mathematics—blueprint reading and shop math—that allow for more direct application of coursework to the manufacturing industry while maintaining the foundation of knowledge in pertinent mathematical skills.  

This change was necessary to remain true to the original spirit of the program – maximizing industry relevance and application of concepts in place of the traditional course approach.  

The Importance of Direct Employer Engagement

Employers are critical to the success of this program. We receive input from our employer partners whenever there are industry changes that may impact the activities and competencies we focus on in the classroom. 

We invite them into the classroom to speak directly to students about how the industry is changing and the job opportunities that are, or soon will be, available to them. Employers also engage with students in mock interview sessions. 

This is a value add for everyone involved. Of the eight founding companies who were engaged in our initial EO program transformation, all eight continue to partner with us in various ways. We have also been fortunate to pull in many employers outside of the founding eight—25 employers are currently involved and we continually provide the opportunity for more to jump on board. 

This Isn't Easy

Not all community and technical colleges operate the way we do. We have found the saying “the devil is in the details” truthful—so putting someone in charge of them has been an essential factor for success. There are a lot of moving parts to a program that employs a “different” approach. 

A challenge we experience is the availability of qualified and competent instructors, especially for technical areas of expertise. This is an area where we encourage employers to engage. We want to provide employers a positive return on investment so they keep partnering with us and providing our students’ seamless transition from their education experience to the workforce—but we can’t do that if we don’t have the practitioner experts. 

Continued employer engagement is a challenge as well. With most companies struggling to find talent while operating with less than optimal staffing levels, it can be difficult to keep them involved.

Despite the challenges, we’ve witnessed some incredible success. With 130 awarded certificates (67 completed Enhanced Operator Level 1 Certificate, 63 completed Enhanced Operator Level II Certificate), and close to 20 learners currently enrolled in the program, the pipeline for enhanced operators is looking bright. We’ve been active practitioners of continuous improvement and we’ll continue to meet people where they are. 

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Gateway Community College, Enhanced Operator Program
© Gateway Community & Technical College