At the crossroads of college and career: Community college events showcase programs and pathways

By Sarah Earle

Christie Cho, left, and Dr. Rebecca Dean, answer an online participant’s question during NHTI’s Workforce Pathways Dialogue and Coffee Hour. Photo by Sarah Earle.

Gathered in the avocado-colored Innovation Lab at NHTI, state officials, business representatives, and community members tapped on their cell phones to answer the question on the screen at the front of the room: “What skills are most needed in our current and future workforce?”

Instantaneously, their answers popped up on the screen: communication skills, work ethic, trades, data analytics, climate technology, healthcare, cybersecurity, global partnerships.

The question is a pivotal one for educators, employers, and lawmakers. Community colleges, with their focus on addressing workforce needs, providing affordable degree and credentialing programs, and serving non-traditional populations, sit at the crossroads of that query. 

NHTI and Manchester Community College, two of the seven colleges in the Community College System of New Hampshire, held events last month that showcased their work in bridging students to careers and invited collaboration with state officials and business and community leaders. 

“We need to determine what it is that you, our community members, need,” Christie Cho, coordinator of NHTI’s Library and Learning Commons, told the 30-some people in attendance at a Workforce Pathways Dialogue and Coffee Hour on October 4.

Pathways have emerged as a key concept in K-12 and higher education in recent years. A bipartisan omnibus bill passed by NH legislators during the last session targets several key components of strong college and career pathways, including funding for career and technical education centers and changes to dual and concurrent enrollment programs. School leaders and educators are also incorporating pathways into their middle and high school curriculum.

Recognizing the importance of college and career pathways, Reaching Higher and the New Hampshire Alliance for College and Career Readiness have made them a key focus of our own work in recent months. 

Read Reaching Higher’s new research on pathways: Exploring Key Traits and Practices to Build Exemplary Career Pathway Systems

Learn about current legislation affecting pathways: TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE: The Career and Technical Education Omnibus Bill

The concept of pathways is nothing new for community colleges.  “We have many, many pathways for students already. That’s what we do best,” NHTI President Dr. Gretchen Mullin-Sawicki told guests during the Workforce Pathways Dialogue event.

In response to student and workforce needs, the college has recently added several new pathways:

  • Transfer Academy Pathway

Introduced last spring, this pathway is designed to create a transition from high school to NHTI to the University of New Hampshire. The pathway builds on the popular Running Start dual and concurrent enrollment program that’s already in place in high schools around the state and helps ensure that credits aren’t lost as students segue from one institution to the next. 

Learn about key issues facing higher education institutions: WEBINAR: Higher Education Roundtable addresses key questions around workforce development access and institutional consolidations

  • Orthopaedic Technology Pathway
    Funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Career Pathway grant, this pathway, now in its second year, facilitates job-shadow experiences for students in Concord Regional Technical Center’s medical terminology course through Concord Orthopaedics. 

Read Reaching Higher’s story on high school pathway programs: Choosing their own adventures: with more options than ever and new challenges ahead, students need clear, personalized guidance as they explore career pathways

  • Department of Corrections pre-apprenticeship program
    Working directly with business partners and the Department of Corrections, NHTI offers inmates a short-term, technical education training program in CNC machining.
  • Microcredentials Program

Launched in 2020, the microcredential program offers three-week classes in specific focus areas including Early Childhood Education Pedagogy, Teaching for All Learners, Math for Engineers, and IT Help Desk Technician. These are designed to fit into certification pathways and help participants advance in their fields or qualify for an entry level position.

  • Accelerated online programs
    Recognizing the pressing needs of both students and industry partners, NHTI has begun offering eight-week online programs, many of which connect to bachelor’s degree programs at four-year institutions. Courses include accounting, business, criminal justice, hospitality, math, and psychology.
  • Innovation Lab 

The Innovation Lab links business partners with students to work on specific projects. In addition to helping students develop job skills and valuable “soft skills,” these partnerships motivate students and give them clear goals, explained Rebecca Dean, Associate Vice President of Enrollment & Student Success. “It’s where they get a sense of identity and purpose,” she said. Launched just before the pandemic, the program got off to a slow start and is now seeking partnerships in the community. “We really, really need you to help us get our students connected and working in New Hampshire,” Dean told the group. 

‘We need to find common ground’

A student in Manchester Community College’s Electrical Lineworker certificate program works on an on-campus power line. Photo by Sarah Earle.

Manchester Community College is also continuously evaluating and developing its programs in response to student and workforce needs, school leaders told legislators at a briefing and campus tour on October 20. The event highlighted several key developments:

  • New HVAC lab

Constructed with open access to its electrical and heating systems, the new HVAC lab allows instructors to simulate every possible HVAC scenario, HVAC Department Chair Eddie Curran explained. “This building really is one of a kind not only in New Hampshire and New England but in the country,” he said.

  • LNA program expansion

MCC responded to the increased need for healthcare workers during the pandemic by building an additional lab for LNA training, Kristine Dudley, Director of Workforce Development told the group. The school was able to train 46 new LNAs during COVID. Recently, MCC partnered with the International Institute to offer English instruction tailored to New Americans aspiring to become LNAs.

  • Critical partnerships

Industry partnerships have helped MCC develop and build several of its popular programs. Its automotive department has partnerships with most of the large automobile dealerships in the area, and its growing Powersports Technician certificate program evolved out of conversations with a local dealer asking for help getting technicians into the powersports field. It’s now the only such program north of Florida.

  • Cutting edge programs

MCC’s competitive Electrical Lineworker certificate program is currently developing the curriculum for a substation technician program, which will bring together specialized knowledge in electrical technology and computer science. Students in MCC’s Cybersecurity program are working with “lifi,” a wireless communication technology that uses light to transmit data. And the Advanced Manufacturing program utilizes robotics technology, 3-D printers, and other cutting edge technology to train workers for a new era of manufacturing. 

The community college events brought together legislators from both political parties, several of whom worked together on legislation that promotes college and career pathways amid a difficult legislative session. Rep. Mary Heath (D-Manchester), who attended the Manchester Community College briefing, said she was pleased with how Republicans and Democrats worked together to save the Governor’s STEM Scholarship program and increase funding for the community college system. New Hampshire needs to do more however, to support post-secondary institutions, she said.

“We need to find common ground,” Heath said after the event. “We need to support our community colleges because when we support them, we support our workforce.”