Community colleges adjust to trends

A downturn in the computer industry that began a few years ago became the writing on the wall for community colleges and trade schools.

“In 2002, we looked around and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do?’ ´ said Barbara Thomas, president of CollegeAmerica, a school that offers business, health-care, technology and graphic-arts training at campuses in Arizona, California, Utah and Colorado, including one in Fort Collins.

Now the construction of new health-care centers in Northern Colorado has Thomas beaming. Two years ago, CollegeAmerica launched a medical program and has since gone from offering diplomas to associate’s degrees to now bachelor’s degrees in some medical specialties.

Across Northern Colorado, community colleges and trade schools are expanding their medical and construction-technology programs in response to the region’s economy.

Several years ago, the computer industry dominated job growth nationwide. With many of those jobs now outsourced to Asia and South America, colleges hesitate to invest more money in information-technology programs.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 16 percent of all new jobs created between 2002 and 2012 will be in health services — 3.5 million jobs in all, which is more than in any other industry. The majority of those jobs require less than four years of college education.

At Aims Community College, which has 14,000 students on campuses in Greeley, Fort Collins, Loveland and Fort Lupton, there’s a five-year waiting list to get into the nursing program.

Industry experts began telling Aims administrators about the increasing demand for nurses a few years ago. Now the college doesn’t have enough clinical space — hands-on training offered at area hospitals — to keep up with the number of students who want to enter the nursing program.

But the waiting list keeps growing because there’s still a need for nurses. Aims wouldn’t offer the program if there weren’t jobs, said Donna Souther, chief instructional officer at Aims.

“In the career and technical areas, we don’t want to continue to put people out there if there are no jobs for them,” Souther said.

That’s also important for the Institute of Business and Medical Careers, which has 360 students on its Fort Collins campus. The school stays away from any industry that might come and go — such as computers — and focuses instead on what it calls steady industries, such as business, health care and paralegal jobs.

The institute has also seen a boom in the medical industry. It just began a medical billing and coding program and sees more job openings than it has students in the pharmacy technician program, said Steve Steele, vice president of operations for the institute.

Most community colleges and trade schools depend on advisory boards, made up of people who work in various professional fields, to tell them where they need to add or curtail programs.

Advisory boards told CollegeAmerica that there’s still a need for computer technology — only to support the medical industry, not to build dot-com companies, Thomas said.

Aims still provides a computer technology program, but administrators are looking for new trends in the industry. For example, Howard Major, also a chief instructional officer at Aims, said the college might start a program for information technologists to train teachers how to incorporate more technology into their classrooms.

Colleges are also changing the way they offer programs. Aims recently received approval to build an applied technology center for its construction-technology program. The center will be on the Fort Lupton campus.

Instead of taking a two-hour class a few times a week, students will be able to complete training modules at the center whenever they have time. Much of the program, which would include welding, masonry and electrical wiring, will be for people already working or those who need more training to become employable, Major said.

Front Range Community College, which has 6,000 students on its Larimer County campus, relied on a study of Northern Colorado employers and economic growth four years ago to change its high school program.

About 400 high school students from 13 high schools in Larimer and Weld attend vocational classes at Front Range. About 80 percent of them get jobs right out of high school, said Gary Cagle, director of the college’s high school programs. The remaining 20 percent go on to college.

As a result of the community study, Front Range added building trades and culinary arts for high school students.

Ed Valencia, director of training, safety and quality for LPR Construction Co. in Loveland, said he’d like to see more students enrolled in the building-trades program. The company helped Front Range implement an ironworking program and has donated steel for students to practice welding.

The result for LPR Construction, which does steel erection for major building projects in Northern Colorado, is quality people to hire, most of them right out of high school, Valencia said.

Front Range also added a professional workplace ethics curriculum to all of its high school programs. Instead of just learning the skills required for a job, students also learn how to work with a team, how to resolve conflicts and how to do basic research.

The request for that training came from employers, Cagle said.

“To employers, the most important skill is not the actual techniques of the job,” Cagle said. “It’s knowing how to work with a team and how to solve problems.”

Cagle said he anticipates that community colleges such as Front Range will have to make more changes to respond to employers’ needs and the economy in Northern Colorado.

“The beauty of a community college is you can make changes quickly,” Cagle said. “We don’t have the multiple levels of bureaucracy to keep us from responding quickly. But we can’t wait for employers to come to us to tell us what they need in our graduates. They will do the training in-house instead of waiting for the community colleges to do it.”