Community colleges launch programs to meet workforce needs

Nursing, marine tech, AI and NASA work all have new programs in progress

Students in the Frontiers Research Program at Drake State work on issues critical to lunar habitat design.

The Alabama Community College System (ACCS) is heavily invested in developing apprenticeship programs, work-based training opportunities and customized curriculum to meet the demands of businesses and organizations who are increasingly looking to the state’s community colleges to fulfill their workforce needs.

The ACCS Innovation Center, a $10 million investment that offers 23 programs to rapidly train workers for the state’s highest-demand industries, launched the first of several industry-specific programs in February. Training includes short-term classes that students can start on a virtual platform and finish with an in-person lab at a regional ACCS location. Once they’ve completed their training, students are job-ready and awarded a credential and an opportunity to earn more certifications at their local community college. Industries first targeted for the Innovation Center include hospitality, butchery, commercial driver’s license, recreation, heavy equipment, plumbing and facilities maintenance.

By November, the system announced that every community or technical college in the state now offers at least one apprenticeship registered through the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship. These programs, supported by hundreds of Alabama companies, help meet workforce needs in high-demand industries, including manufacturing, nursing and childcare, and allow students to work for a competitive wage in their chosen field of study while earning credit toward their certification or degree.

“It is important that as the community’s colleges, we continue to work with communities, business and industry partners all over the state to make sure that we are meeting the needs of the workforce in a way that is effective,” says Jimmy Baker, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System. “In many cases, success doesn’t have to be within a classroom or over two years’ time, but rather through rapid training within weeks or through apprenticeships.  We want to ensure that every resident who is willing and able to succeed — whether in an adult education program, an academic program or a work-based learning program — can benefit from the services of the Alabama Community College System.”

Newly developed programs and industry partnerships at Gadsden State Community College, Central Alabama Community College, Coastal Alabama Community College and Drake State Community and Technical College already are stepping up to address industry workforce needs.

- Sponsor -

The Alabama Legislature approved amendments to the Nurse Practice Act in 2021 to allow nursing apprenticeships in the state. The rules took effect early in 2022 and before year’s end, more than 60 health care facilities had signed up to offer nursing apprenticeships for licensed practical nurse (LPN) or registered nurse (RN) programs at 12 of Alabama’s community and technical colleges.

One of those is Gadsden State, which announced the start of its apprenticeship program for registered nurses in June. Riverview Medical Center in Gadsden and Rehab Select in Albertville and Talladega, the first health care facilities to enter into agreements with Gadsden State, have embraced the apprenticeship program, says Kenneth Kirkland, dean of health sciences at Gadsden State and former ACCS director of health programs. “They absolutely love this because they know they’re cultivating and growing their own employees within their organizations.” And, he adds, the students like it because they’re getting paid to learn.

Students who are accepted as nurse apprentices work alongside experienced nurses in the health care facilities, earning $15 an hour with a tiered wage schedule, so as they complete competencies their wages go up. “This really reduces a major barrier for a lot of students in health care programs,” says Kirkland.

In addition to Riverview and Rehab Select, the program will be offered to all clinical agencies that work with Gadsden State and will help meet the high demand for nurses across Alabama.

“You’ve got to listen to the community to meet their workforce needs,” says Kirkland. “Coastal Alabama started an LPN apprenticeship and I started the RN apprenticeship. Initially they were going to be run as pilots, and we just said this is too good of a workforce program; our employers need this.”

Drake State student and NASA intern Sharde Tate works on a robotic arm.

In February, Central Alabama Community College (CACC) signed a partnership agreement with Intel to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) program, which, when it kicks off in January 2023 at CACC’s Prattville campus, will be the first AI program in the state and one of the first in the country.

The decision to partner with Intel was critical, says CACC President Jeff Lynn, who jumped on the opportunity when it first caught his eye. “AI technology is moving so rapidly. We felt like we needed to get this on our college campuses as quickly as possible.”

CACC identified key instructors to participate in Intel’s AI Workforce program, which, in addition to faculty training, provides more than 225 hours of AI content to community colleges, as well as guidance on developing AI certificates, augmenting existing courses or launching full AI degree programs.

“We have a really good group of instructors who have gone through this program now, and we feel really prepared to start it. I think it’s going to grow significantly,” says Lynn, adding that he continues to identify companies who may want to hire students who have participated in CACC’s program or even enroll their current employees.

So far, 31 schools in 18 states have joined Intel’s AI Workforce program. “There’s a map that shows the schools that have this relationship with Intel, and there’s one dot in the center of Alabama, and that’s us. We feel really good about that,” says Lynn.

A partnership between Coastal Alabama Community College and Yamaha Motors has caused significant growth in the college’s marine technology program. The career program launched in 2021 and allows students to earn industry recognized credentials through Yamaha’s Introduction to Outboard Systems certification. Over the course of two semesters students learn to service outboard, inboard and inboard/outboard engines; how to test, maintain and repair steering devices and electrical systems; and how to repair metal, wood and fiberglass hulls and vessel components.

Matthew Judy, who joined the program as a full-time instructor in 2021 and has worked with the college’s president and the dean of workforce development to build the program from scratch, says it’s addressing a shortage of qualified marine technicians in South Alabama.  

Curriculum for the program is provided through Yamaha Motor University, which students access online while Judy guides them in the classroom. “And then we walk out into the shop and we’ve got all these brand new Yamaha [motors] for them to take what they’ve learned online and apply it.” 

The standalone certificate consists of nine classes and can be completed in three semesters. Students in the program also have opportunities to earn other certificates through Yamaha and the American Boat and Yacht Council. Judy also is a certified forklift operator and can train them for forklift certification, a big plus for prospective employers.

“My vision for this program is not only building it up with more equipment for the student technicians to work with but also giving employers a chance to come into our shop regularly so they can identify technicians that would be a good fit for them,” says Judy. “I have all of these students here working non-stop. I’d love to see employers regularly coming to pick out talent that they think would fit with [their operations] and building those relationships so that when students graduate with their certificates, they’re ready to seamlessly slip into those workplaces.”

Coastal Alabama is one of less than two dozen colleges that currently partner with Yamaha, which sells more than 300,000 boat motors annually and makes up nearly half the international market share.

First cohort of Drake State NASA interns Josh Driskill and Jaiden Mason working on a project.

In 2020 NASA Marshall Space Flight Center awarded Drake State Community and Technical College a cooperative agreement notice to collaborate on its Moon-to-Mars Planetary Autonomous Construction Technology (MMPACT) project. The arrangement is the first of its kind to be awarded to a two-year institution and Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

With matching funds provided by NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP), Drake State established the Frontiers Research Program where a team of faculty and student interns work on a variety of additive manufacturing projects that contribute to current NASA needs in lunar habitat design and manufacturing. That includes testing 3D printed concrete structures to develop techniques for building landing pads, roads, living spaces and other large structures using lunar based materials. Frontiers Research Program interns have also had an opportunity to work with ICON, an Austin-based 3D printing construction company that is partnering with NASA to develop a space-based construction system.

Because of the program’s success, Drake State had the distinct honor of serving as the official host site for the first United Nations-designated International Moon Day, observed on July 20 to commemorate the first moon landing and raise public awareness about sustainable moon exploration. The partnership also supports NASA’s efforts to engage underrepresented populations and minority institution faculty and students in its research initiatives.

“We are super excited to be participating in this project,” says Drake State President Dr. Patricia Sims. “Our work with Marshall and MUREP continues to pay dividends for our college and the students we serve. It’s been a very rich experience.”

Internships in the Frontiers Research Program are available to students who are enrolled in Drake State’s advanced manufacturing program.

Katherine MacGilvray is a Huntsville-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the January 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox