JVER v29n2 - New Roles to Meet Industry Needs: A Look at the Advanced Technological Education Program

Volume 29, Number 2

New Roles to Meet Industry Needs: A Look at the Advanced Technological Education Program

Richard Zinser
Western Michigan University

Frances Lawrenz
University of Minnesota


The Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, is presented as a model for business and education collaboration to develop technical degree programs for producing more and better technicians. The new roles of industry and college leaders are discussed through a synthesis of literature on skill standards and workforce development. Data are presented from a national evaluation of ATE projects on collaboration, materials development, professional development, and program improvement that demonstrate substantial goal attainment. A discussion on how this process has changed and benefited the partnerships concludes the paper.


The purpose of this paper is to examine the hypothesis that the ATE program is effective in meeting emerging needs of community college technician education. The theoretical, explanatory framework is that the effectiveness of the ATE program is due to its positioning at the juncture of two major trends in technician education and to its comprehensive approach. The research literature is synthesized in order to establish the existence of the two major trends-the need for technicians by industry and the changing role of community colleges. The ATE program is then shown as a catalyst which allows these two trends to interact constructively through the ATE program components of collaboration, materials development, professional development, and program improvement.

The Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program sponsored by the National Science Foundation is the pinnacle of collaboration between industry and education. Begun in 1993, the ATE program provides about $38 million in funding to various institutions or consortia across the country to improve technological education in strategic, advanced technology fields such as telecommunications or biotechnology. The program is a direct and effective response to the challenge of providing trained employees for high-tech, high-demand, high-wage jobs. In a broader context, the program may be seen as making a significant contribution to the workforce development system.


The Need for Technicians

There are several dimensions to the surfacing of the need for more and better technicians: the designation as a national priority, the growth of technician-level positions requiring an associate's degree, and the implementation of industry-based skill standards. First, numerous publications in the last decade have outlined how advanced technology, the global economy, and changing demographics have created the need for education and training programs to supply industry with qualified technicians. The US national need for more technicians was anticipated in the early 1990s in reports such as Gaining the competitive edge: Critical issues in science and engineering technician education ( National Science Foundation, 1993 ) and Technology for all Americans: A rationale and structure for the study of technology ( International Technology Education Association, 1996 ). Some industries are experiencing a wave of employee retirements, while at the same time new technology is requiring additional training for companies to remain internationally competitive. The training is so extensive and applied to so many personnel that human resource development professionals are looking to outside contractors (e.g. community colleges) to help develop and provide programs. Occupational and technical programs offered at community colleges are especially important in today's rapidly changing job market. When asked about the economy, community college administrators mentioned several of their programs as particularly relevant to national economic recovery: digital systems, facilities technology, manufacturing process technology, and telecommunications ( Coley, 2000 ).

Yet many young people may not be aware of the opportunity and the potential of technician level jobs because of a bias for the four-year college degree. As discussed by Grubb (1999a ), the occupations with the highest growth rates require less than a bachelor's degree, typically one to two years of postsecondary technical education. This training increases the probability that students/employees will receive better pay and advancement opportunities in technical positions than those with industry experience only, and in some cases even better than those with a bachelor's degree. In order to entice students to consider a technical career companies have had to form alliances with others in the same or similar industry to promote the benefits of their technician jobs in schools and colleges.

Another aspect in the growth of technician-level jobs is the advancement of national, industry-based skill standards. The standards are typically developed by a group of companies within an industry to define broad job categories and to establish entry level and career advancement criteria. The study by Bunn and Stewart (1998) with committee members for technical programs showed that the use of standards increases communication between industry and education because the standards provide a basis for curriculum and assessment. Having an international benchmark also increases the accountability of programs to meet industry's needs.

In the last few years, the National Skill Standards Board has been encouraging business and industry to communicate their requirements and work together. Edie West (2001) , then Executive Director of the Board, concluded that "a system of skill standards, assessment, and certification that identifies what a worker needs to know to perform his or her job may well hold the answer …" (p. 11) to meeting the workforce development challenge. Since community colleges have always worked (more or less) with industry, they may be in the best position to deliver these skills.

Zeiss (1999) described the use of standards to certify skills as "a major opportunity for community colleges" (p.14). In some cases a college degree has become less meaningful in the work world because although it indicates acquisition of technical and academic knowledge, it may not provide evidence of skills. A professionally recognized skill certification on the other hand verifies and documents that the completer has attained the prescribed skill levels. It also supplies a target for continuous education to keep incumbent employees' skills updated. Zeiss envisions a training and verification system that is the equivalent of the International Standards Organization for the development of technical skills. Programs are state-of-the-art because of industry involvement and continuous review. This also establishes credibility with both companies and students ( Cantor, 2000 ) because the required competencies are certified, in some cases by a third-party examination. The resulting credential is then visible, recognized by the profession and portable for the studentemployee across company or geographic boundaries ( Wonacott, 2003 ).

Changing Role of Community Colleges

Evidence of how the role of community colleges is changing can be seen in the needs analyses being conducted, the transition to a market orientation, the growing diversity of non-traditional students, and the merging of training and education programs. To begin with, although technical education is provided through a variety of venues, a critical recent focal point is community colleges. Community colleges can play a unique role in validating and providing skills but they are faced with the need to continue to expand both academic and vocational offerings ( Carnevale & Desrocher, 2001 ). Furthermore they are in competition with the rapidly growing number of certifications offered by national industry, trade and professional associations and company vendors, such as Microsoft, Cisco, and others ( National Organization for Competency Assurance, 2000 ).

Are community colleges prepared to fulfill the needs of technical workforce development? Hamm and Mundhenk (1995) examined this question systematically to determine colleges' readiness for the new demands being placed on them. In their analysis for the National Council for Occupational Education, the authors put forth 19 questions designed to elicit discussion on institutional mission, funding, staffing, delivery systems, and the like. In the context of technician training, important questions are: How effectively does the college assess local labor market needs? How well do degree requirements match industry standards? Does the college measure its impact on the economic development of the community? The development of a new technician program (e.g. a new associate's degree for chemical process technology) may compel community colleges to reassess their roles because the new program often requires assessing and marshalling resources under new priorities. McCabe (1997) described the community college as the "nexus for workforce development" because of their proximity, access, flexibility, cost effectiveness, and experience working with industry.

According to Walter and Farmer (1999) , ". . . the traditional practices of begging for resources and inviting representatives to serve on ineffective advisory groups have only served to alienate business and industry" (p.177). The new technician programs, based on demanding standards and quick turnaround time, do not always fit well with conventional college practices. Instead, industry first identifies the skills and performance measures, and then helps develop and sometimes teach the courses. "These employers simply do not trust [that] traditional, faculty-developed curriculum will meet their needs" ( Jacobs, 2001 , p. 8). What Jacobs calls the "new vocationalism" is the technician programs based on specific technological processes. Relevance of the programs is defined in terms of the ability to meet an external standard for occupational achievement.

Is this market orientation a new role for community colleges, or should it be? The debate on the changing role was summarized recently by Bailey (2003) for the Community College Research Center. Community colleges have always been comprehensive institutions that serve many needs, including remedial and transfer programs. Workforce development also covers many things such as welfare-to-work programs, part-time training for new job entrants, and upgrades for existing employees--sometimes through coursework and sometimes through non-credit contract training.

In addition to facing a different market for their area, community colleges are faced with very different students than they have been used to in the past. The new technician degrees require a specific occupational focus for a student population that is changing dramatically. According to research by the Business Coalition for Education Reform (2002) , the "typical" community college student is now 29 years old; 60% attend part-time; 80% work and attend school; 50% already have a postsecondary credential; and 28% already have a Bachelor's degree. So as community colleges adapt they will likely maintain their comprehensive mission but somehow have a dual focus on learner needs and employer expectations.

In his examination of postsecondary vocational education, Grubb (2001) described an emerging system of workforce development that bridges short-term training and mainstream education. Some workforce programs in the past have been ineffective due to waste and duplication, low quality instruction, and the lack of information and tracking of participants' progress. But by targeting the high potential employment opportunities, such as the technician positions, colleges can bring to bear the resources provided by both business and the institution. Orr (2001) echoed this point by stating that programs should focus on growth industries and increase collaboration with businesses and other colleges. In so doing, programs can share expertise and resources, costs and risks.

The new system therefore emulates the design and execution of a product stream in business, following the same principles of Total Quality Control ( Zeiss, 2000 ). Working with community colleges, consortia of companies are beginning to develop and manage a knowledge supply chain to ensure a pipeline of qualified technicians. The community colleges can become one of the "preferred suppliers" for these industries.


The data presented here were collected as part of a comprehensive evaluation of the national ATE program by Western Michigan University's Evaluation Center. As part of this evaluation, a yearly Web-based survey is administered to all current ATE projects that have been in operation for one year. In addition to the survey, a subset of 13 local sites was selected for in-depth site visits.

The Web-based survey has been conducted every spring since 2000. The survey consists of four sections addressing the work categories of the ATE Program: collaboration, materials development, professional development, program improvement. Program improvement includes items about recruitment and retention as well as descriptive information about the programs. Three additional sections are devoted to basic information (i.e. demographics), monitoring, and status of the projects. The response rates each year are quite high—in the 90% or above range. In 2000, 100 projects responded; in 2001, 75; in 2002, 77; and in 2003, 128. The survey items and results are posted at http://www.wmich.edu/evalctr/ate/.

Site visits were made to 13 ATE sites (3 centers and 10 projects) to provide indepth data to illuminate the survey data. Judicious mixes of knowledgeable evaluators and content experts conducted the visits. Sites were selected using a purposive sampling technique based on recommendations from NSF, thus ensuring a cross section of types in the ATE program. Sites were primarily selected based on maturity (time conducting the project), technological disciplines, funding levels, geographic dispersion across the US, major ATE objectives the projects addressed, and type of sponsoring organization. Specifically six projects were in their second or third year of funding, and seven projects were in at least their fourth year of funding. The technological disciplines represented were: Chemistry/Environmental (3), Manufacturing Technology (3), Information Technology (3), GIS/Multimedia (2), Engineering Technology (1), and Biotechnology (1). Seven projects were funded for a total of $750,000 or less, while six projects received a total of more than $750,000. Of the 13 projects, four were located on the west coast, four in the middle section of the US, and five on the east coast.

To minimize the burden on the organizations, site visits were usually one full day in length for projects and two full days for centers. Activities included interviews with key personnel (e.g., principal investigators, co-principal investigators, business and industry collaborators, faculty, students), review of materials (e.g., modules), tours of facilities (e.g., labs), and observation of activities (e.g., classes). Reports were shared with the sites to verify the accuracy and perceptions of the site visitors.

The survey results and the site visit reports served as data for the following sections describing the four work areas of the ATE program: collaboration, materials development, professional development, and program improvement.

Program Data

The ATE Program

The ATE projects exemplify the successful implementation of new technician programs to help fulfill the needs of industry, while helping community colleges meet the demands of their new role. The various technologies and geographic regions addressed by ATE projects show that the model can work in remarkably diverse situations. For example, there are new associate degrees in Information Technology, Manufacturing Technology, Marine Technology, Chemical Process Technology, Environmental Technology, and Bio-Technology, just to name a few. Although the specific projects focus on certain technologies or industries, most of them are developed through a similar process based on the following major components, or drivers.


Obviously colleges and businesses have been collaborating to some extent all along, but ATE projects are expected to have a higher level of collaboration, to formalize and evaluate the partnerships ( Reed, 2001a ). For example, a group of industry representatives will review and help revise the technician curriculum, be involved in pilot and field-testing the program, and finally, provide verification that it is producing the outcome of developing qualified technicians. Because industry has been involved in the development process, the credibility of the program increases; the businesses are more likely to hire the graduates, and students who enroll in the program can be confident of its relevance. Articulation between institutions and the dissemination of curriculum materials is also greatly improved.

The most recent report by the Evaluation Center ( Hanssen, Gullickson, & Lawrenz, 2003 ) shows that 87% of the projects ( n = 128) were engaged in substantial collaborations. As noted in Table 1, the data are also divided into four sectors: 81% had collaborations with business and industry, 68% with public agencies, 84% with educational institutions, and 47% with other organizations. The highest level of collaboration was in the general support category which includes advisory committees and curriculum development; monetary and in-kind contributions amounted to almost $21 million for the 97 projects reporting. The projects also rated the quality of their collaborations as "good" to "excellent".

Table 1
Collaborations on Advanced Technology Education (ATE) Projects Between Community Colleges and External Institutions
Type of Institution n %
Business & industry 90 81.1
Public agencies 75 67.6
Educational 93 83.8
Other 52 46.8
Total 111 86.8
Note . Categories are not mutually exclusive

The development of materials for ATE projects generally includes new courses or new modules which are self-contained units that may be applied in more than one course. The NSF grantees are encouraged to use a developmental framework, outlined by Rogers (2001) , to ensure that high quality materials are produced. Materials should:

  • reflect the results of a formal needs analysis,
  • be industry verified,
  • reflect learning goals and objectives,
  • be developed/adapted as part of a systematic curriculum development process,
  • support and identify instructional strategies including pedagogy and assessment,
  • undergo pilot and field testing,
  • be continuously evaluated, and
  • be revised based on evaluation evidence (p.7).

Survey data reveal that 77% of the projects were engaged in materials development, resulting in 266 different products (Table 2). As for the development process, the projects reported that they used industry-based standards to guide materials development "most times" or "each time". Materials were also pilot tested and field tested most or each time, and the standards were used in assessing student success in the courses.

In order to implement new instruction effectively, project faculty must update their skills and be trained to teach in the new program. As summarized by Gold and Powe (2001), there are seven basic elements that contribute to successful training programs:

  • ongoing learning and training,
  • institutional support,
  • hands-on and classroom-based experiences,
  • individualized training,
  • follow-up training,
  • mentoring, and
  • train-the-trainers approach to continuing education.

Table 2
Numbers and Stages of Materials Development
Development Courses Modules
Stages m n m n
Draft stage 3.2 45 8.0 42
Being field-tested 3.7 31 6.9 36
Completed 7.7 43 7.9 38
In use locally 6.8 48 8.1 36
In use elsewhere 4.5 10 26.8 25

The authors found that "the more of the 7 elements an ATE site employs, the more likely it is that desired outcomes would be achieved" (p.4). One of the more important findings is that, in many cases, the professional development received by project faculty would not have been possible except for the NSF funding.

The 2003 survey data show (Table 3) that 104 of the projects (81%) reported offering 1,104 professional development opportunities that were attended by 14,709 faculty and staff. Conferences, workshops, and in-services were the most common development activities; in addition, 48 faculty participated in industry internships, and 226 participated in online courses. Most of the projects conducted some kind of follow-up with the participants, mostly through letters or e-mails, personal contact, survey, or newsletter. Implementation strategies were also studied, showing that most participants were satisfied with the activities and intended to use the materials; about half the participants were able to try the technology or materials in the classroom, and incorporate the materials directly into the program.

Program improvement refers to the integrated efforts of the entire process, from needs assessment to sustainability, and focuses on fine-tuning the elements to increase the impact of the program. Some of the elements identified by Reed (2001b) are:

  • a curriculum development and implementation process;
  • an organized sequence of classes, laboratories, and work-based experiences;
  • emphasis on STEM standards (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), communication skills, critical thinking, advanced technology courses, and workplace competencies;
  • leads to an appropriate degree, certificate, or occupational completion point;
  • provides industry with an increased pool of advanced technicians; and
  • structured to obtain maximum articulation of educational experiences.

Table 3
Professional Development Opportunities and Participants
Development Opportunities Participants
m n m n
Conferences 2.6 166 69.0 4214
Workshops 3.7 325 62.5 5317
In-Services 3.9 253 42.8 2568
Internships 0.8 36 1.2 48
On-Line Courses 2.9 128 6.1 226
Other 7.5 196 93.4 2336
TOTAL 1104 14709

Although Reed found that there was room for improvement in several areas— such as formally involving industry in the field-testing of new courses—the 2003 survey data demonstrate considerable success in terms of program improvement (Table 4). First, there were 4,381 courses offered for ATE funded projects, with 68,450 students taking at least one course in the last 12 months; 88% of the courses were taken at community colleges, with 6% each in secondary and baccalaureate institutions. In addition, 30% of the courses for specified ATE projects were new and 24% were changed or updated. Second, projects reported significant changes in the classroom environment due to ATE program efforts: 46% increased the use of work-based skills in curricula, 44 % reported increased interest by students, 55% had more relevant and up-to-date materials, and 49% showed a movement away from traditional lecture delivery. Third, articulation agreements are increasing that improve the transition of students between educational levels, which may increase the number of students choosing the technician programs. Articulation between secondary and two-year colleges was reported by 34% of projects, while 41% have agreements between two-year and four-year colleges.

Discussion and Implications

The collaboration of industry and education is an evolving relationship, but it has been catalyzed recently by the infusion of the ATE projects in emerging technology fields. This could be viewed as the point at which two trends are merging: the need for new technicians and the new market orientation of community colleges. The urgency felt by many industries for the development of a new system to supply their technician needs has forced them to seek partnerships with community colleges and to take a more long-term, strategic view of the relationship. Meanwhile the colleges have had to be more open to the involvement of industry experts, to streamline their curriculum development process, and to seek out professional development opportunities. Both parties have the same goal to educate and employ new technicians, and since the problem has become too big and too complex for any one organization, the best solution may be to collaborate.

Table 4
Program Improvement Indicators
Indicators Measure Categories
Courses: Classes Offered 4,381
Students 68,450
Classroom changes: Work Skills 46%
Increased Interest 44%
Increased Relevance 55%
Less Lecture 49%
Articulation: Secondary/Associate 34%
Associate/Bachelor 41%

In their report on critical issues for the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers, Anderson and Kosarek (1997) recommended that technician training must be done by qualified faculty with relevant work experience and must be done on equipment actually used by industry. Additionally, some of the training may have to be conducted on site and with a flexible schedule to meet industry needs. In this role the community college serves as another certified supplier for the company, and ideally may be seen as an extended department of the company.

This is exactly what the ATE projects aim to do. For example, one of the better known partnerships is the Gulf Coast Process Technology Alliance started in 1995 with 60 petrochemical and refining facilities, and 23 community and technical colleges in 10 states ( Hayes, Kiles & Raley, 2001 ). A grant from the National Science Foundation allowed them to form the Center for Advancement of Process Technology at the College of the Mainland in Texas. Working with industry experts, the Center created eight new courses for the AAS Degree in Process Technology. The courses were also designed for web-based delivery to upgrade the skills of current technicians. Some companies help build the technology labs for their local community colleges, and the colleges hire part-time or retired employees from the companies as instructors. Most importantly, the companies hire the graduates from the new program with advanced employment standing, saving substantial time and money ( American Association of Community Colleges, 2003 ).

This is a new and challenging role for many community colleges. Grubb and his co-authors ( Grubb, Badway, Bell, Bragg, & Russman, 1997 ) described the emergence of the "entrepreneurial college"—a college within the regular college— that focuses on workforce, economic, and community development. In the role of workforce development the college responds to specific employers with customized training or contract education; employers help design the curriculum, assessment, and scheduling. In economic development, the aim is to help the general economy of the area by convening industry clusters, helping with technology transfer, fostering business leadership, scanning economic environment, policy-making, attracting employers to the region, and media and telecommunications. Finally, community development is meant to promote the well-being of the immediate community through political, social, and cultural areas efforts. All of these activities performed in development roles will contribute to the collaboration—and vice versa—with local industry groups.

The entrepreneurial college requires different measures of success, not just enrollments and credentials completed. Instead, the "college" is moving towards measuring employer satisfaction, the wages of completers, and the number of repeat customers. (Ideally, the college should follow program completers to see if they are more productive on the job, are employed longer, and are promoted more frequently, but there is little research in this area). The benefits of this business-like relationship are additional students, increased revenues, and the confidence that the college is keeping up with skill requirements. These new roles are moving the community college "… from an institution focused on educating students to one centered on meeting the needs of business and the local community" ( Dougherty & Bakia, 1999 , p. 1).

The "new college" is also much more visible and publicly supported. In Brand's (1997) report to the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers she noted that community college presidents are increasingly giving their mission statements to local business groups and boards of trustees for review and input. Colleges are also working more vigorously with state and local economic development agencies, state legislators, associations, and universities. All of this publicity and focus on business may lead to tensions with the traditional part of the institution. However, the new technician degrees might be seen as a hybrid of the credit programs and workforce development (because they are responsive to industry but also culminate in a degree that is transferable to a four-year college) which may serve to reunite the two "colleges".

The ATE projects would also seem to fulfill Grubb's (1999b) five criteria for judging the effectiveness of vocational education. First, effective programs "… understand the local labor market, and target those jobs that are likely to employ individuals with community college credentials, with relatively high earnings, strong employment growth, and opportunities for individual advancement" (pp. 8-9), all of which are met by the technician programs which are the focus of this paper. Second, effective programs ". . . contain an appropriate mix of academic education, occupational skills, and work-based learning . . . " (p. 9), again which are designed into the technician programs. The other three criteria deal with the institutional aspects of support services, further education, and information on results.


The ATE program is the pinnacle of collaboration between industry and education. Through its emphasis on formal collaboration, materials development, professional development, and program improvement, the ATE program has made significant accomplishments toward the goal of providing the nation with more and better-trained technicians. Studying the examples provided by ATE projects, which are listed on the NSF website , can help other businesses and community colleges move forward. (See also Mahoney & Barnett, 2003 , The Learning Edge: Advanced Technological Education Programs at Community Colleges ). Evaluation of the actual impact—the numbers of new and updated technicians being employed—is an ongoing project, but the indicators look very positive

The process used by the business-education partnerships may be replicated in other industries and local communities. Typically consortia of companies target a technician level need and proceed to work with one or more community colleges to develop a new technical degree. Following the guidelines discussed above in the four components of successful programs, the partners work out the roles and responsibilities, funding and timing. They collaborate to produce new curriculum starting with a competency profile, task list, or skill standards; the materials are tested, verified, and continuously evaluated; faculty are provided with various forms of professional development; and the program is marketed, articulated, and sustained.

ATE projects have overcome many of the barriers that can frustrate businesseducation partnerships (Lawrenz & Zinser, personal interviews, February-August, 2003). Business leaders are sometimes perceived as being interested in quick fixes to their problems, and therefore try to muscle their suppliers into coming up with a solution. Colleges on the other hand can be seen as bureaucratic and slow to change. But the national need for a high-tech workforce has brought the two sectors together

and inspired them to collaborate on a long-term, yet entrepreneurial basis.


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Richard Zinser is Assistant Professor of Career and Technical Education at Western Michigan University [E-mail: Zinser@wmich.edu ]. His research interests include workforce development and program evaluation.

Frances Lawrenz is Wallace Professor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota [E-mail: lawrenz@tc.umn.edu ]. Her research interests include the evaluation of Science and Mathematics programs.