Local colleges tackling workforce

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

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MOUNT VERNON – Skagit Valley College in 2018 launched the state’s first brewing program for a community or technical college. Back then, it answered a looming workforce need as an influx of new breweries opened throughout the region.

The timely launch of new workforce training programs is taken seriously by Skagit County’s local higher education institutions: Signature Investors Skagit Valley College, Western Washington University and Washington State University Everett.

“If we sit and wait for employers to tell us when there’s a need, then we are already years behind,” said Skagit Valley College President Dr. Thomas Keegan. “It’s important for us to be at the forefront with our strategic plans regarding emerging workforce demands.”

Each college’s strategic plan helps guide its future, enabling the institution to plan for workforce and education needs.

For instance, Washington State University Everett created a Bachelor of Science in Data Analytics recently in response to a need of several industries to collect, curate, analyze,  discover and communicate knowledge from “big data.”

It is the only university west of the Mississippi River to offer the degree for undergraduate students.

WSUE also offers industry-aligned majors designed to complement Skagit County’s and the broader region’s robust manufacturing, agriculture and aerospace sectors, said WSUE Chancellor Dr. Paul Pitre.

“Our strategic focus on STEM with a special emphasis on engineering positions us to educate the next generation of engineers who will go on to work for Janicki Industries, PACCAR, Hexcel, and other local companies,” Dr. Pitre said. “We have further plans to build on our successes with new programs as well.”

Western Washington University has also responded to local workforce needs in several ways. In addition to its new Energy Science & Technology program, its Electrical, Manufacturing, and Plastics and Composites Engineering degrees are highly calibrated to regional employer needs, according to President Dr. Sabah Randhawa.

“We take the present workforce needs and preparation of our graduates very seriously,” Randhawa said. “We partner with industry to ensure our curricula are informed by those needs in the relevant areas.”

WWU has many industry partners sitting on program advisory boards to help inform programs. It also has many industry partners like Boeing, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines, Ingersoll Rand, Puget Sound Energy, Snohomish PUD and more to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities. The university offers over 175 majors.

Skagit Valley College offers an array of programs to prepare students for the workforce or to move on to universities. Its programs include 4-year degrees in applied science, 2-year degrees in over two dozen fields, and professional and technical certificates in 30 programs.

Of equal importance to workforce training, said all three college leaders, is a liberal arts education.
“The value of a liberal arts education cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Keegan. “Employers want people with technical skills, but they also want those who can think critically,  communicate well and be a member of a team. Those are all central pieces of a liberal arts education and of a healthy society.”

Skagit Valley College programs integrate workforce training and liberal arts for a more well-rounded education, Dr. Keegan said. Dr. Pitre said there is tremendous value in a university- level education. Students enroll in college not only to learn a set of skills, but to also grow cognitively and psychosocially.

“As our students study business hospitality, data analytics or engineering in preparation for their careers, they are also experiencing a level of intellectual growth that comes from  studying subjects like biology, sociology and literature,” Dr. Pitre said. “This maturing of students into smart, empathic, healthy citizens would be lost if we only focused on workforce training. We educate the whole person at WSUE.”

Dr. Randhawa said that while employers are seeking workers with specific skills, they also value workers who can think broadly, solve new problems, work in diverse teams and analyze, integrate and communicate with audiences.

“Employers recognize that strict and exclusive pre-professional training has an increasingly brief shelf life, and that such a hire will not only have to refresh their skills and continue learning to stay current but may not have learned some of the fundamental ‘soft’ skills that never expire,” Dr. Randhawa said. “A liberal arts education, in which a student is exposed to a broad range of methods and forms of inquiry in addition to more specialized learning, provides a strong foundation for innovative thinking and lifelong learning that will far outlive the perishable specifics learned as an undergraduate.”

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