Pathway Partnerships Lead to Completion

By Sonya Stinson

A technical college in Minnesota and a local high school join forces in an effort to fill the skills gap. They even expect to scale the program as student interest develops.

With employers facing a severe shortage of workers with technical skills and the disappearance of high school vo-tech training, administrators at Minnesota West Community and Technical College have expanded their longtime partnership with a local secondary school.

The pathway partnerships between Minnesota West and Worthington Senior High School were developed to help bridge the gap between workforce demands and the availability of job-ready candidates. Four years ago, the Pathway Toward Health Care Careers program was introduced. The latest addition, which offers high school students an accelerated pathway to a career in automotive technology, is now in its second year.

Dawn Gordon, director of practical nursing and dean at the Worthington campus of Minnesota West, is in charge of the health careers program, which leads to certification as a nurse’s assistant. Dennis Hampel, dean of career and technical programs and dean of Minnesota West’s Jackson campus, oversees the program that offers basic certification in automotive technology. The state provides funding for the programs, which are part of the Postsecondary Enrollment Options initiative.

Hampel, who has been involved in vocational education since its heyday, says the partnerships are meant to help fill the void left when secondary schools largely abandoned this area of teaching.

“We’ve seen a deterioration in vocational education at the high school level here in Minnesota,” Hampel says. “Our technical and trade programs at the high schools have kind of gone away, so this was an attempt to bring some of that back.”

Hampel says the automotive-technology program in particular is designed for students who thrive in settings that provide lots of hands-on learning. The program’s curriculum leads to a basic certificate after two years of coursework. Courses are taught at Minnesota West’s automotive center, in Worthington.

Students at Worthington Senior High School can access the program as early as their sophomore year; those who are admitted have dual enrollment at the high school and the college and are able to earn college credits at no cost.

A pathway program to bring to scale

Sixteen students entered the auto-tech program in the first year, and Hampel estimates that six to eight will graduate with certificates at the end of the spring 2015 term. He hopes to see the program scale up as awareness grows. In a couple of years, he’d like to see the numbers average about 20 students for each year of the two-year program.

“You’d like to think you can go into these kinds of programs and expect to have a full class the first time you open the door,” Hampel says. “But I think there is always some [skepticism] by students of exactly what the program entails and what they are going to get out of it.”

More than 10 years ago, Minnesota West offered another program that allowed Worthington Senior High School students to take college-credit courses in auto tech, but the coursework did not lead to a certificate; about 60 students participated in that program.

Hampel attributes the success of the longtime partnership to the cooperative relationship the college has developed with the high school’s administrators. He also acknowledges that teachers at Worthington play a key role in getting students ready for the rigors of a college-level study program.

“They’ll target some students, too — those they think would really do well in a hands-on learning environment,” he says.

Meanwhile, the technical workforce shortage in rural Minnesota is not only driving the expansion of the pathway partnerships program but also pushing up wages and prompting more students to pursue technical certificates and degrees at the college.

“Right here at Jackson, the students are leaving with premium starting pay,” Hampel says. “It’s been really a good spring. It looks like our enrollment in some of the technical programs will be up this fall. That’s good sign.”

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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