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Future Shock

Smartcollar Colleges

Educating 21st Century Middle Skills Technologists
University Business, Feb 2012

When asked to reflect on the role of higher education in preparing future workers, Bill Gates replied: “Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself...At Microsoft there are lots of brilliant ideas but the image is that they all come from the top—I’m afraid that’s not quite right.” Gates reminds us of the importance of practical, real-world, learning by doing for tomorrow’s Smartcollar science and technology workers.

Following World War II, a high school degree was worth what an associate’s degree is today, and a bachelor’s then was roughly equivalent to a master’s. For returning veterans, there was work in industrial factories—work places where a high school or trade school background served as a point of career entry. Through a gradual, yet inevitable, process of degree inflation and the development of leaner manufacturing processes, robotics, and artificial intelligence—complex technical, applied job skills and competencies have now taken their place as the threshold credentials for entry-level graduates looking for gainful technical career placement.

In 2012, multifaceted hi-tech industries depend on community and technical colleges to vet the next generation of middle skills technology and science workers—jobs requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s. That is not to suggest that middle skills are less valuable in the new technology workplace. Indeed, they are at the epicenter. In point of fact, it sometimes takes five associate’s degree, middle skills technologists to support the work of one Smartcollar research and development PhD, making these community and technical college graduates the backbone of the emergent technology economy.

Demand for middle-skill jobs continues to grow across the nation. In Massachusetts alone, employers will look to hire 400,000 new workers in several middle skill career fields – i.e., science technology and applied engineering. 

In our reconnaissance fly over of the nation’s leading public two year comprehensive technical institutions, several prominent examples emerged, including Northern Essex Community College (Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.), Oakland (Auburn Hills, Mich.), and De Anza (Cupertino, Calif.) – leaders in providing state-of-the-art middle skills education and training for future science and engineering technologists.

Consider Northern Essex Community College, now celebrating its 50th year and specializing in middle skills career programs like electronic technology, engineering science, computer forensics, and information technology. At Northern Essex, graduates of the electronic technology program are well-equipped to continue their baccalaureate studies, or importantly, directly enter the workforce as electronic engineering technicians—middle skills workers who test, repair and operate advanced technologies.

In our follow up interview, we learned from Northern Essex President Lane Glenn that middle skills education can provide career entry employment by closing the significant gap between high school and associate degree middle-skills credentials. Impressively, the college boasts a 94 percent employment rate for recent graduates, with 85 percent of graduates staying in the service area of the college working, living, learning, and raising families.

We also learned from the Northern Essex experience that applied technology students typically have unmet economic needs which exceed available financial aid in the private market. Typically, public technical and community college tuition may be half the price of private engineering technology schools, yet both offer regionally accredited degrees with full credit recognition at transfer institutions.