Spokane Journal of Business

Community colleges work to meet demand for skilled trades in Spokane

Colleges seek employer input on programs, costs

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Nursing students Carly Lanclos and Jeremy Gomes simulate treating a baby at Spokane Community College.
-—LeAnn Bjerken
Welding student TJ Tugaw completes a wire test during a class at Spokane Community College.

Faculty at Community Colleges of Spokane say that in recent years, they’ve been working harder to establish relationships with employers that will enable them to train students for high-wage jobs in skilled trades.

“We’re working closely with a number of area employers  who cannot find enough employees to meet new openings and upcoming retirements,” says CCS spokeswoman Carolyn Casey. “They’re asking us to help spread the word about our one- and two-year technical programs that train them for these jobs.”

CCS includes Spokane Community College, in East Spokane, and Spokane Falls Community College, in northwest Spokane.

Casey says each of the college’s technical programs have an advisory board that includes a mix of college faculty business leaders and owners in industries such as health care, manufacturing, and information technology.

“Because advisory boards meet regularly, our faculty can hear what their needs are firsthand and ensure our curricula are staying current with each industry’s standards and demands,” she says. “Our deans and faculty also regularly visit job sites to talk directly with employers and make certain students are prepared for work environments.”

CCS also keeps a record of the latest labor market data for the Spokane area, she says, so that faculty can talk with students about career forecasts and current job demand.

“Right now, the demand for employees in certain industries is so high that many students are finding a job before they can complete the program,” she says. “Part of what we’re working on is encouraging them to wait until they’ve completed their degree or training, so that they’re in a better position to move up in their career later on.”

While the colleges always have worked alongside employers in spreading the word about high-demand jobs, their efforts have increased recently as more older workers retire and fewer students seek employment in the trades, she says.

In addition to regular marketing and outreach, CCS has developed a website that lists information on all the trade skill programs offered through the college including health, business, hospitality, information technology, technical and agricultural degree programs.

Some of the most in demand careers listed involve aviation maintenance, architecture-related careers like engineering and drafting, electrical maintenance and automation, and computer numerical control machinist. 

The website lists aviation maintenance careers as having a starting wage of $17-$25 an hour, architecture careers list a starting wage of $16-$18 an hour, electrical maintenance careers list a starting wage of $17-$29 an hour, and CNC machinists are listed as having starting wages between $13-$19 an hour. 

Dave Cox, dean of instruction for the college’s technical education division, says the division offers 15 professional programs, including manufacturing, electrical maintenance, hydraulics, machining, welding, fabrication, mechanical design and computer aided design programs.  

“Almost all of our programs are two-year degrees with the exception of welding,” he says. “Some of the highest demand jobs right now within those areas are machinist, CNC operator, welder, fabricator, and electrical maintenance technician.”

Cox says all the division’s programs have active and robust advisory committees that include some major Spokane-area employers.

“The No. 1 thing we’re hearing from employers now is that they need more people,” he says. “A couple of our programs are running classes day and night, and it’s to the point where we have the lights on, and doors open almost 24/7.”

Cox says he believes the two main factors driving the increased demand for trade jobs are a lack of student awareness, and the “graying out” of the current workforce.

“We’ve seen an upswing in the economy and manufacturing that’s contributing to a greater demand, but most of it comes down to the fact that students have been less aware of careers in manufacturing and older workers are reaching retirement age,” he says.

Cox says demand for manufacturing jobs has been increasing steadily over the past five years, to the point that most businesses now consider it a critical issue.

“It was five years ago that we first started running our programs in double shifts to meet demand,” he says.

Cox says his division is working directly with several larger manufacturing companies, including Kaiser Aluminum Corp., Wagstaff Inc., Altek Inc., MacKay Manufacturing Inc., and Wheeler Industries Inc.

“These are companies that have been very connected with us, in finding ways to address this serious workforce issue,” he says. “We let them know we’re working hard, looking for people and businesses to partner with in order to stave off this situation we’re facing with reduced workforce.”

Cox says several local groups of manufacturing companies are considering offering full-ride scholarships to encourage students to enroll in manufacturing fields, with the hope that if the company sponsors the student through the program, they’ll consider working for them upon graduating. 

“It’s a big step, but it’s encouraging to see these companies are willing to go beyond brainstorming and offer help a bit more directly,” he says.

Josh Sims is a machining student in his first quarter at SCC who says he already has a job working with Spokane Valley-based Shamrock Machining and plans to continue to do so after graduating. 

“I’ll continue with Shamrock part time while working on a four-year degree at Eastern Washington University,” he says. “I think it’s helpful to have that real-world experience. It gives you a foothold in industry and a preview of how you’ll be using your skills after graduation.”

JL Henriksen, dean of health and environmental sciences for Spokane Community College, says that division includes several dozen one- and two-year health care programs.

“Some of our most in-demand health care careers include nursing, radiology technician, and sonography programs,” he says.

Henriksen says the college’s health and environmental sciences division maintains clinical relationships with many providers, including dental clinics, medical clinics, and hospitals.

“Many of the providers we work with have representatives on our advisory committees, and we’re constantly seeing new folks rotate in with new ideas to share,” he says.

One of those ideas was to create a simulation lab in the college’s nursing department, where students can practice how to care for patients in a true-to-life setting. 

“We took over a space here and renovated it to create the sim lab, which opened in fall 2018,” says Henriksen. “It has three suites, with some very expensive equipment including mannequins, that are able to simulate various medical conditions. It’s set up so faculty can control the simulations and observe and record students’ responses.”

Henriksen says program faculty often brainstorm with employers as to how to attract more student interest in high-demand health care trade careers.

“Some programs have lots of students wanting to get in and not enough seats, while others need more applicants,” he says. “Sometimes, a student is interested in health care and aware of some of the main occupations but may not know much about allied health care professions.”

Like Cox, Henriksen says the biggest thing employers request is more students.

“Employers here have shared through surveys that they find our students are well-prepared and knowledgeable,” he says. “They also appreciate that our students prefer to stay in the area to live and work.”

Current nursing students Jeremy Gomes and Carly Lanclos say they like the program’s affordability and its shorter duration compared to programs offered at four-year institutions. 

“It’s a very affordable, fast-paced option,” says Lanclos. “At the same time, the level of education you get is excellent.”

“It goes by quickly, but it’s a very competitive program,” agrees Gomes. “They really make sure we know our stuff.”

Jeff Brown is the dean of instruction for the college’s business, hospitality, and information technologies division. He says the college offers two base information technology programs; software development and network design and administration.

“For information technology, those are our main two that are built as two-year, associate degree programs, and they’re considered key training for some high-demand, high-wage jobs,” he says. “There are several others in the division like our paralegal and health information management programs that also offer graduates high demand, high wage jobs.”

Like his colleagues, Brown says the programs in his division also work closely with advisory committees made up of local area employers, meeting several times a year to talk about curriculum changes, software upgrades and equipment purchases.

“Technology changes quickly, and we want to ensure we’re preparing students, focusing on the right things,” he says.

“Most of what we’re hearing is that these companies need employees,” he says. “They’re very interested in helping us to produce quality graduates to fill those positions.”

Brown says some of the top information technology jobs right now, that offer high wages with minimal schooling, include software developers, mobile application specialists, computer programmers, network technicians, and computer support technicians.

Brown says he knows of seven or eight local businesses that are represented on the advisory board for the college’s software development program.

“Those who join our advisory boards are usually quite active, and we recently sent out a survey to over 30 local software development companies to ask them about their employment needs,” he says. “Our faculty is well-connected in the community, too, with many doing private consulting or actively working in the industry.”

Brown says the college also works closely with the Spokane Workforce Development Council to keep up to date on the demand for jobs in different industries.

“We do see our graduates getting jobs,” he says. “There’s a lot of opportunities, particularly for women, which is good to see in a field that’s traditionally been male dominated.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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