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Professional Opinion

Changing the expectations around technical education

Needs of today’s industry involve liberal education components
University Business, April 2015
Rich Wagner is president of Dunwoody College of Technology.
Rich Wagner is president of Dunwoody College of Technology.

Technical education is often touted as solely a means of getting a job.

There is no doubt that it’s a key reason students enroll in our programs. And yet if all we do is give our students the tools to secure an entry-level position, then we have failed as educators. We have failed the student and we have failed the workforce.

Like many college presidents, I regularly meet with business leaders, including CEOs of many of the companies that hire Dunwoody College of Technology graduates. Invariably the conversation comes around to the fact that they need employees who not only have technical skills, but who can also problem solve, communicate effectively, work in a team and interact positively with a diverse range of co-workers and clients.

Room to grow

Our graduates often simply want to land that first great job. That’s goal one, but we do them no favors if that’s the sole focus.

If they don’t also understand how to be “lifelong learners,” or have the desire to excel and the analytical reasoning skills to navigate a career path, they’re unlikely to continue to move up in their industry or strike out on their own to become the next generation of entrepreneurs.

This means that technical educators still have to deliver the intensive instruction and training that comes with a high price tag for lab spaces, equipment, materials and software. But they now must also instill the types of qualities that in the past have more traditionally been associated with the liberal arts disciplines.

Shared expectations

Technical education should embrace this opportunity to incorporate meaningful general education courses that foster creativity, critical thinking, and a desire for lifelong learning while building the skills necessary to succeed in a global workforce.

As a first step, colleges should work to make sure that all their key constituents are aware of, and understand, the value of these expectations.

For students, that means they will attend class and finish their coursework, of course, but also—in their learning, internships and extracurricular activities—they will enthusiastically engage with the theories and practices of their chosen industry and act with professionalism in all that they do.

For faculty, that means technical instructors will work together with arts and sciences instructors so that students have an integrated educational experience. And, of course, the instructors must also model a passion for lifelong learning, creativity, critical thinking and professionalism.

Employers must continue to work with technical colleges to make sure our curriculum meets the needs of their industries. They should support our programs with donations to help us stay up-to-date with equipment and technology, provide scholarships for the future workforce, and hold us accountable to deliver the skilled technicians needed in their industry.

Higher education administrators at campuses that offer technical programs can provide leadership by helping each of these groups better understand one another’s needs and aspirations—especially employers and students who may not be aware of all that goes into the process of a technical education.

They can also support faculty who are experimenting with creative teaching techniques and curriculum changes that respond to this new set of expectations for the technical education graduate.

Finally, administrators can be vocal champions of the value that technical education offers to students, alumni, local employers and the economy.

Technical education has always been about more than just the industry-specific skills that students learn. Now, more than ever, we need to deliver a well-rounded, rigorous, applied education to our students, the employers that hire them, and the industries they serve.

Rich Wagner is president of Dunwoody College of Technology.

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