Partnerships help Del Tech supply workforce with skilled labor

By Dan Linehan
Special to Delaware Business Times

Like its counterparts around the country, Delaware Technical Community College aims to connect its courses and programs with demand from public and private sector employers.

To do that, they must closely understand and work with the industries and governments that will hire their graduates.

We looked at four such Delaware Tech partnerships — in aviation, diesel engine maintenance, law enforcement and information technology — with an eye toward understanding how the college partners with industry to meet a workforce need.

Aviation Maintenance Technology — ALOFT AeroArchitects

When Cheryl Parker, vice president of people at ALOFT AeroArchitects, started out in 2006, one of her first tasks was to meet with Delaware Tech about recruitment. At the time, the firm relied heavily on contract labor.

“Our goal, and we knew it would take years, was to have a partnership with a local school to put a program together that would basically start offering a candidate pool for us,” she said.

It did take years — the program received its airframe certification in 2009 and its engine certification in 2014 — but it has quickly deepened the pool of candidates. Delaware Tech’s Aviation Maintenance Technology program now graduates about 24 students a year who are ready to earn their Airframe and Powerplant (usually called A & P) license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“They really surprised us,” Parker says. “[Graduates] definitely have the experience to be a C-level mechanic.”

Demand continues to grow regionally and nationally, said Barry Weiss, the program’s department chair, who was hired in 2007.

“As it turns out, today there’s a tremendous amount of need for aircraft mechanics,” he said. “The key thing is that we keep our subject matter general enough so it’s applicable to any place they go and work.”

Job options include aircraft repair facilities, airlines, drone companies or places like ALOFT, which specializes in products and services to enhance aircraft performance. For example, one of its primary businesses is retrofitting Boeing 737s with extended fuel tanks.

Despite lagging wages — Delaware aircraft mechanics and service technicians earned an average wage of $27.18 in May 2014, compared with $29.72 in May 2017 — the jobs themselves are plentiful, said Weiss.

That’s a comforting thought for students like Anthony Colson, who is midway through the two-year program.

“Yeah, that feels great to hear,” the 20-year-old Clayton resident said of a job waiting for him upon graduation. “It’s the coolest thing ever. And they’re good jobs, too, good pay and benefits.”

Non-mechanical skills, such as punctuality and care for one’s tools, are particularly important in aviation, Weiss said, and the program has incorporated them into the curriculum.

“When you put your hands on an aircraft to work on it, you’re really taking people’s lives in your hands,” he said.

Barry Weiss, chairman of the Delaware Tech Aviation Maintenance Technology program: “As it turns out, today there’s a tremendous amount of need for aircraft mechanics.”

Delaware State Police Training Academy

When Mike Terranova graduated from Delaware Tech in the 1970s, perhaps four in five of his fellow students ended up in law enforcement.

“That’s flipped now,” said Terranova, chair of the criminal justice and social sciences programs at Delaware Tech’s Stanton Campus. Out of Delaware Tech’s roughly 700 criminal justice students, about 25 percent are committed to becoming police officers, he said.

“It takes a unique person who wants a career in law enforcement these days,” he said.

For these students, Delaware Tech worked with the Delaware State Police to create a training option about five years ago. The Law Enforcement Option is a two-year associate degree program that ends with a 13-credit course taught by certified police instructors.

The goal is to weed out the uncommitted and prepare potential recruits for the rigors of policing.

“They want to make sure people want this as a career, not as a job,” Terranova said.

The Delaware State Police are hardly at a loss for applicants. About 1,800 people applied for the upcoming 35-member academy class, said Lt. Col. Monroe Hudson, deputy superintendent of the state police.

The goal of the Law Enforcement Option is to better prepare candidates for police academy, which lasts about six months. Three state agencies run police academies: New Castle County Police, Wilmington Police Department and the Delaware State Police, which also trains and recruits for smaller agencies.

Trooper Irina Celpan, a Delaware Tech graduate who joined the state police in September 2017, said the program’s scenario-based training helped prepare for routine calls such as thefts.

“You can’t just take their information, you have to canvass the area, make contact with neighbors, look for video and get the value of the items that were stolen,” Celpan said.

An immigrant from the Eastern European nation of Moldova who also speaks Russian and Romanian, Celpan said she decided to become a law enforcement officer by watching how police interact differently with citizens than they did in Moldova.

“When I came to the U.S., I was absolutely amazed at the community outreach of Delaware State Police with the locals.”

Information Technology and Networking — Delaware Army National Guard

A veteran who wants to translate their military experience and training into college course credits often has to negotiate on a case-by-case basis.

“There are issues when vets come to any college asking about the credits that will be accepted for their training,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Donald J. Catalon, state command sergeant major of the Delaware
Army National Guard. “There’s no standard.”

The Guard’s recent partnership with Delaware Tech seeks to make that process easier for soldiers and vets, said Justina Sapna, vice president of academic affairs.

“It prevents that negotiation process when a student is admitted,” she said. “If a student has X modules then it’s a guarantee that those credits apply.”

The military refers to the hundreds of jobs for soldiers and officers by a unique code, called a “military occupational specialty,” or MOS. Each specialty is composed of modules, and it’s these units that Delaware Tech counts to decide how many credits to award a student.

The college and the Guard are working on applying course credit toward degree programs in logistics, criminal justice and emergency management. But the first degree program to pair with Guard training is information technology and networking.

Depending on their modules, Guard soldiers and vets are eligible for between seven and 21 credits toward their degree. Delaware Tech faculty reviewed each module and matched them to courses that covered similar material.

Agreements that lay out the rules for transfers are common at Delaware Tech. It has about 260 such pacts, most of which help students transition toward bachelor’s degrees at the University of Delaware, Wilmington University and other institutions. In this case, Delaware Tech is the recipient of transfer students. “It’s a little bit ground-breaking for us,” Sapna said.

For the military, it’s both another recruiting tool and a way to employ its veterans, who have an unemployment rate more than double that of active Guard soldiers.

“Right now, 70 percent of the people coming to the military and the Guard are looking for a college education benefit,” Catalon said.

Meanwhile, there is a growing need for information technology and networking graduates. According to employment data from the firm Emsi, the field is projected to grow by 4 percent over the next 10 years, with an estimated 12,280 Delaware job openings through 2028.

More colleges are also waking up to the potential of partnering with the military, whose soldiers and veterans could bring in billions of dollars in tuition fees, according to Catalon. “They’re going to go to class and they’re not going to waste money,” he said.

Del Tech’s aviation program provides students with the soft skills needed to find a job.

Diesel Mechanic Program — various partners

Next up for Delaware Tech? The school is launching the state’s first diesel mechanic training program in January 2019. A shortage of diesel mechanics led the college to investigate demand in the industry.

What spurred the school’s latest project? A workforce training program needs two things: “Jobs and interested individuals who want those jobs,” said Paul Morris, associate VP for workforce development and community education.

The industry is projected to grow 17 percent in the Delmarva region over the next 10 years, according to data compiled by Delaware Tech. Jobs, check.

Meanwhile, Delmarva’s unemployment rate stood at 6.5 percent in January 2018, about 44 percent higher than for the nation as a whole. Workers, check.

Delaware Tech’s last challenge was finding a location. That hurdle was cleared when the National Guard made available part of an armory in Middletown. Renovations are expected to start this summer and end in time for the first students to take classes by the end of January.

Instead of a two-year degree that includes general courses followed by skill-specific classes, the diesel mechanic program will be built around the eight or nine certifications used by the industry.

A single certification might take a few months, a handful may take three or four months and it may take 12 to 18 months to get all of them, Morris said. There’s one caveat to this competency-based program.

If an entrant’s math skills are not up to par, he or she would have to take a remedial course to enter
the program.

Morris said the lack of a Delaware training facility had threatened the industry’s ability to replace the mechanics it expects to lose through upcoming retirements. Part of the impetus for the program came from employers who reported high turnover due to intense competition from workers, difficulty keeping out-of-state workers and high costs from sending workers outside the state for training.

Despite this apparent demand, employers of diesel mechanics in Delaware have been either unable or unwilling to raise wages to attract more workers. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for mechanics working primarily with diesel engines was $23.37 in May 2014. Three years later, that had barely nudged, to $23.80 an hour.

Morris said they will base the size of the program on the number of jobs that are available.

“We’re not going to flood the market with diesel mechanics,” he says.

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