Building a Successful IT Pathway

By Heather Boerner

Bossier Parish Community College has launched a program that helps give students the skills they need to launch careers in local industry, thanks to workforce partnerships.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a two-part series on IT pathway programs. Stay tuned for Part 2, which focuses on mentorship.

Today, students in the IT pathway at Bossier Parish Community College (BPCC), near Shreveport, Louisiana, can intern at nine local companies — 14 starting in the fall. That experience alone is invaluable for students seeking jobs in the local economy, but, through a special program, students can get even more practical experience. For example, students are sometimes able to test their interview skills with a CEO. Then, around graduation, the students can get feedback on their resumes. A list of 50 local and national IT companies seeking people with the students’ exact skills is also available.

It took work to get the program to this place, says program manager/knowledge content lead Paul Spivey. When he arrived at the college, last fall, Spivey says local CEOs served on the school’s advisory board, but most didn’t know what courses were mapped to national IT certifications, like CompTIA and CISCO.

In order for college administrators to build strong bonds with local industry, they needed to listen, offer simple ways for industry to get involved and adapt quickly to workforce needs. Here, we boil down Spivey’s keys to the program’s success.

Collaborate with industry before the need arises

“If there were any advice we would give for developing industry partnerships, it would be to embed those relationships as early as possible,” he says. “The thought usually is, ‘We’ll have students go through this program, and then when they’re ready to graduate and get jobs, we’ll develop relationships.’ But it really needs to be done in the beginning.”

Spivey says one of the smartest things BPCC did was frontload funding for industry outreach in its Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant. Often, colleges wait until the third or fourth year of the grant to ask for funds specifically earmarked for forming these relationships, he said. But BPCC started in year two. That way, when the first cohort graduates, firm relationships will support students as they move into careers.

Start IT pathway programs by listening

Spivey started by researching area companies with IT needs. Those companies included school districts, tech companies and the local hospital. Once identified, he met with the intention of listening, not selling partnership.

“This is not a ‘What can you do for me?’ situation,” he says. “I was truly listening to them. The pamphlet was a minute at the very end of the meeting — a kind of ‘By the way, here’s something you can consider contributing’ — but that’s not the first thing.”

It seemed to work. Faculty members had wanted relationships with some of these companies for years, and now they were on board. Within two months of Spivey’s arrival on campus, he organized the department’s first IT roundtable discussion with CEOs and other business leaders.

How to get business leaders on board

So what was on that brochure Spivey handed out at the end of the meeting? Simple: On one side, it listed all the benefits of partnering with BPCC, including more job applicants, more exposure, more tax incentives and increased employee training. On the other side, Spivey gave CEOs a menu of participation levels — everything from placing BPCC brochures in break rooms to providing paid and unpaid internships.

“That way, they could quickly scan it and say, ‘Here are some areas I wouldn’t have thought about doing,’” Spivey says. “Having it all on one sheet made it easy.”

Consider revising your curriculum

Sometimes, industry leaders told Spivey that a curriculum was misordered or out of date. He says taking critiques to heart built trust with industry leaders, even though changing a curriculum presented challenges. Business leaders got to see that the college took what they said seriously — and in so doing, the college better aligned its program with industry needs.

“It’s all about relevancy,” he says. “When I meet with [industry leaders], I tell them that we’re not married to this curriculum. This curriculum was put together in an effort to have the best-qualified students come out of the program. We’re always asking the question, ‘What do you see on here that doesn’t fit?’ ”

Student success after graduation

As students prepare to graduate, Spivey likes to meet them. He reviews their resumes and asks them what they’re most interested in. Sometimes, he sends students directly to a company that he knows is looking for such a candidate. Other times, he finds a way to gently tell a student that his handshake is too weak or that he needs to clean up his resume. The point is to make the students as marketable as possible, inside and outside the school.

“That’s been the biggest thing — being the liaison between all the good we do at the institution and talking with companies about what they need,” he says. “Once you establish this relationship and there’s some trust, you start to have a real sense of needs. You can get down to the nitty-gritty.”

About Accelerating Opportunity
The IT Pathways profiled in this two-part feature are a part of the Accelerating Opportunity initiative. Accelerating Opportunity is a community college initiative of Jobs for the Future in partnership with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, the National Council for Workforce Education, and the National College Transition Network/WorldEd. It receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Kresge Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Arthur Blank Foundation, the Woodruff Foundation, the Casey Foundation and the University of Phoenix Foundation.

Heather Boerner

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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