When the booming nanotechnology business in Albany, New York, began spreading west, Buffalo’s Erie Community College (ECC) responded by creating a new associate degree program, which will launch in fall 2015. Now, news that a key manufacturer employing the technology is expanding into the region has administrators scrambling to change the curriculum to help meet that company’s job demands.
In 2014, SolarCity, a California-based company that installs solar-energy systems, purchased a small solar-panel manufacturing business that had set up office in Buffalo, thanks to financial incentives from the state. Now, a new solar-panel manufacturing plant is under construction and is expected to create job openings for 1,400 workers over the next 18 months. With no previous expertise in panel manufacturing, SolarCity set up a pilot plant in Fremont, California; the plant’s operation will help reshape the college’s nanotechnology program.
“Right now, everybody in Buffalo is in a little bit of a holding pattern,” says Anthony Dalessio, associate professor of electrical engineering technology and chair of nanotechnology at ECC.
While curriculum development is still a work in progress, the college’s experience with the process so far might offer some useful insights for other institutions looking to tie their career and technology education programs more directly to job market needs.
Starting with a broad focus
Before the existing program was developed, Dalessio and other faculty and staff members in the electrical engineering technology department completed a training program at Penn State’s Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization. (Penn State has become a national center for nanotechnology workforce training, made possible with a National Science Foundation grant.) ECC based its nanotechnology curriculum on the center’s model, and the state approved the program last fall.
“That was really a very broad program,” Dalessio says. “It really focused on skill sets and not any particular industry segment.”
Before SolarCity came onto the scene, the college was already anticipating a nanotechnology hiring boost from several new pharmaceutical companies in the area, he says.
“We’ve identified some other smaller manufacturing companies that we actually didn’t know existed in western New York that contacted us after seeing the press we’ve been receiving about this program,” he adds.
Administrators and faculty members are meeting with local employers to get a better feel for the specific skill sets they require. The curriculum changes might eventually include more than one nanotechnology program, tailored to individual industries, Dalessio says. The collegewide curriculum committee will have to OK the revisions before they are presented to the state for final approval.
While Dalessio says the complete overhaul isn’t likely to happen before fall 2016, minor tweaks to specific courses can be implemented sooner.
Facing new challenges
Last September, Erie Community College received a $5.75 million grant from NYSUNY 2020, a partnership between the State University of New York and the governor’s office, to build the college’s nanotechnology teaching facility and purchase equipment. But those funds don’t cover operating costs.
“There’s still faculty and staff that need to be hired — and the more we branch out, the more faculty and staff we’ll need,” Dalessio says.
Along with those budget constraints, another challenge is the department’s ability to turn out program graduates fast enough to meet SolarCity’s projected hiring needs. The company wants to fill 400 operator posts by summer 2016, but the college doesn’t have enough laboratory equipment to accommodate that many students. And Dalessio emphasizes that SolarCity’s workforce demands are only part of the picture.
“There are other projects that are in the works for western New York that would actually make SolarCity seem small,” he says. “There’s potentially another 3,000 or 4,000 people that the area might need in nanotechnology over the next four or five years.”