LIFEBOUND | This College is Introducing a New Form of Classes
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This College is Introducing a New Form of Classes

This College is Introducing a New Form of Classes

Ruben Santos, a technical maintenance specialist for Oatey, a Cleveland-based commercial and residential plumbing product manufacturer and distributor, has returned to a place he hasn’t been in 30 years: the classroom.

“I was so nervous because I have been out of school since 1988, and going back to classes was a shocker to me,” Mr. Santos, 48, said.

But it’s not a typical classroom. His lessons are taught in a retrofitted 53-foot-long semi-truck trailer in Oatey’s parking lot. His customized training is paid for by his employer and provided by Cuyahoga Community College, also known as Tri-C.

Tri-C’s mobile classroom is one of a growing number of similar labs being rolled out by community colleges in response to employers’ needs for skilled workers in industries from manufacturing to health care to information technology. The twist is that they’re going where the students are rather than having the students come to them. And students learn skills they can use right away.

“The mission of community colleges is all about access to the skills training, and we are seeing more and more colleges adopting the mobile technology and buying the equipment to do it because they see it has such an impact,” said Darlene Miller, executive director of the National Council for Workforce Education, an affiliate council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

“It’s exciting because as technology keeps changing with automation and artificial intelligence, workers need to keep being reskilled and retooled, and, for adults who are bound by family and life obligations, having access with a mobile lab to learn is critical,” she said.

The Tri-C unit hit the road about two years ago and travels in Northeast Ohio to companies such as ArconicMold-Rite Plastics and Ford, and to schools in nine counties. It houses a lab area for hands-on training and a classroom space with 10 desk stations, Wi-Fi and video systems.

It cost around $340,000 to refurbish the trailer as a classroom, and was funded primarily by a grant from Citizens Bank. But there are also the operational costs of roughly $9,000 per quarter to cover fuel and maintenance.

“Our trailer, which is booked for 47 weeks this year, allows us to take the training to businesses and directly address the region’s manufacturing skills gap,” said William Gary, executive vice president of work force, community and economic development at Tri-C. “Employers allow their employees time, and they can walk right out of the plant and into our trailer for an hour, or three hours, to conduct the training right on site.”

Oatey currently has 15 employees enrolled in mobile training. The curriculum includes: modules on blueprint and schematics reading; sensors, pneumatics and hydraulics; and advanced troubleshooting. “We recognized a need to grow the skills of our internal technical talent,” Bob Rodgers, Oatey’s chemical plant manager, said.

In turn, the company expects a bang for its buck. “We anticipate seeing improved machine uptime,” Mr. Rodgers said. “When machines are running, we achieve greater efficiency and production. Moreover, with this investment, we see enthusiasm and engagement from our maintenance team who appreciate our commitment to their professional development.”

For workers who have been on the job for decades like Mr. Santos, the training is a way to keep digital skills current. “For those who are mid- or late career, who perhaps haven’t had to navigate the enrollment process, time commitment and commuting aspects of college, the convenience of the mobile classroom has been a welcome innovation,” said Maureen Pansky, senior human resources manager at Oatey’s manufacturing plant.

There is a real demand for these mobile units, especially for older workers who need to learn new skills or enhance their skills to move forward, said Phyllis Cummins, senior research scholar at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She is examining the role that community colleges can play for workers ages 40 to 64 to help them remain competitive in the labor market.

The students she has interviewed were all “very concerned about keeping their skills up-to-date and having opportunities to improve their skills,” Ms. Cummins said. The good news: “Because of very low unemployment rates, employers are taking on more of the responsibility for providing training and opportunities, which can also help workers, for example, shift to a new position in manufacturing as technology makes some jobs obsolete.”

One of the mobile lab pioneers is Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay. “We started in 2010 with our first one, which taught computer numerical machining,” said Mark Weber, dean of trades and engineering technologies. “Our goal was to bring training to rural high schools and introduce students to advanced manufacturing careers. We give them hands-on experience with electromechanical and automation engineering training and teach maintenance technician skills for manufacturing plants.”

Today, the classrooms-on-wheels are offered in seven counties and 36 high schools, and they have expanded to employer-site training, especially in rural areas, Mr. Weber said. The college also operates a lab specializing in information technology. “It has clearly taken off,” he said.

Mobile labs from Pueblo Community College in Pueblo, Colo., deliver work force training in a range of advanced manufacturing skills via classrooms housed in seven trailers (an eighth is in production.) They contain multimedia instructor stations and specialized equipment. To date, the labs have been used in eight Colorado counties and in Utah and New Mexico.

“We had a manufacturing partnership in this region who was telling us they really needed a training solution that was more flexible and where they wouldn’t have to send their employees to an off-site location,” said Amanda Corum, executive director of Pueblo Corporate College, a division of Pueblo Community College that networks with local businesses. “It’s easier and cheaper for them if the classes were right there at their facility.”

“Much of our service area is rural,” she added, “so we also set up in a general location and multiple people can come for training, or employers can send their employees.”

Students run the gamut from eighth graders learning about careers to incumbent workers to those learning new skills to enter manufacturing. “We also take training programs to those who are incarcerated and going to be released in one or two years to provide them with jobs skills they will need so have a sustainable job when released,” Ms. Corum said.

The numbers speak for themselves: “Our Pueblo Corporate College team has provided over 160,000 hours of ‘earn as you learn’ training,” Patty Erjavec, president of Pueblo Community College, said. “Those completing the training see, on average, an initial 3 percent increase in pay.”

One benefit for employers is the convenience. “It is a little insane how easy it is,” said Ron Francis, the plant manager for pewag Inc., an industrial chain manufacturer in Pueblo. “It’s great because we’re able to grab our employees in training back if we need them since they are not off site.”

Another advantage is that “the instructors are the same ones you get if you went to the college,” Mr. Francis said. “They know the material really well and set it up so our guys can be a success from the minute they walk back out.”

Dylan Rebensdorf, 23, is one of the pewag employees taking advantage of the on-site classes. “Everything they’re able to teach in that lab you can see for yourself on the work floor,” he said.

The upside is tough to ignore: “I would love to see this all over the country for workers like me,” Mr. Santos, the Oatey maintenance specialist, said. “I have been here for 30 years, and the mobile training is really giving me the opportunity to grow and stay on the job longer than I might have been able to do without it.”

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