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We must do this mission better than anyone else

  • President, Wichita Area Technical College
  • Published Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, at 3:31 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, at 11:24 a.m.

Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots recently said, "The key to life is to try to see things other people can’t see. The National Football League is set up for everyone to go 8-8. How can you differentiate? You have to be bold in any business and do things you take a lot of criticism for but you believe are right."

In today’s world, colleges seem to be on every block. The web is full of colleges, or so-called colleges, with slick images of happy students. Like the NFL, one could argue that the system of higher education has gravitated toward being mediocre. And beyond mediocrity, some of today’s colleges, generally those flooding the airwaves with advertising night after night, are just plain fraudulent. In some cases, it is the worst of all worlds – students attending diploma-mill colleges that charge twice as much for credits that do not transfer and graduates who are not hired.

At Wichita Area Technical College (WATC), a member college of the Kansas Board of Regents and governed by our very own Sedgwick County Technical Education and Training Board, we believe we must differentiate ourselves from all the rest. To do that, we have embarked on an ambitious plan to be one of the nation’s top technical colleges.

When Gordon Bethune took over Continental Airlines in 1994 he made a strategic decision to focus on what people wanted from them, and in their case it was taking people where they want to go, on time, with their underwear arriving in the same city. It was that simple. And getting people to understand how their individual job related to that mission was the key.

Likewise, WATC has had to ask the question – what do the people of south-central Kansas want from us? We’ve concluded they want us to help them, and in some cases their children, get to where they want to go in life and help provide enough, well-trained employees for area employers. And we believe we must do this mission better than anyone else.

To achieve our mission, WATC has been willing to take bold steps and accept the consequences. This inspires our employees to trust us and when they trust you, you have a powerful workforce.

First, we eliminated bureaucracy at the top by eliminating a layer of administration in academics. We merged the director of the foundation office and the vice president of institutional effectiveness into one position. We moved operations and maintenance, security and bookstore operations under one vice president. These changes allowed the college to reprioritize resources to create a new student services and workforce development division, a new director of marketing, the new associate dean in manufacturing, a refocusing of the vice president of academic affairs on preparing for major healthcare initiatives, program review, faculty professional development and evaluations, and new program development.

Second, we modernized 35 separate processes which involved better service to our students including such things as simplifying the tuition refund policy, moving from an “advising” to a “coaching” model which allows students to be with the same coach for their entire academic career. We also strengthened our Academic and Student Codes of Conduct reinforcing the exceptional high standards required in the workplace, and we are moving to an online registration system.

Third, we had to get our fiscal house in order by initiating internal workforce practice improvements that strengthened efficiency such as using direct deposit for expenses as well as salary. We reduced operating costs by discontinuing a long-standing supplemental retirement benefit plan that was extraordinarily expensive for the college. We closed underutilized locations which cut facility costs and allowed duplicated assets to be eliminated. And we stopped offering unprofitable courses.

Fourth, we focused on keeping and acquiring talent. We cast our net for new employees much wider to include those with industry experience. For example, our new vice president for student services and workforce development was a former manager at a VA Hospital and the director of HR at a large hospital in Fort Worth. Our director of aviation programs was with Cessna for 33 years. Our bookstore manager was in retail for over 20 years. In addition, we focused on keeping existing talent by eliminating the practice of furloughing. We initiated an internal pay equity program resulting in 17 pay equity adjustments. This year, all full-time and part-time employees received holiday bonuses. We are especially proud of the employment stability at WATC which has allowed the college to avoid layoffs in these turbulent times.

Focusing on our mission of getting students where they want to go in life and providing enough, well-trained employees for area businesses has allowed us to solidify our commitment to the aviation industry by creating new faculty positions in avionics, composites, robotics, electro-mechanical, and CATIA. It allowed us to share faculty positions with WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research in non-destructive testing and advanced painting and coating.

Now that we have our mission, our structure, our talent, and our processes in place, we are turning our attention to addressing the realities of today’s job market with our school district partners, counselors, and to our parents.

To put it simply, WATC is attempting to change the culture of how we think about higher education in our region.

Robert Schwartz, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, notes that the world of work of the future will be divided into three segments. About 30% of tomorrow’s jobs will require a baccalaureate degree and beyond. About 30% of tomorrow’s jobs will require a two-year degree or certificate. And about a third of tomorrow’s jobs will not require a degree at all.

Currently, in the United States, 70 percent of high school graduates go to college, up from 40 percent in 1970. At the same time, according to an analysis done by Manpower Inc., “businesses are accelerating their offshoring, part-timing, and temping of as many white-collar jobs as possible. The result is that we have more unemployed and underemployed BAs. Meanwhile, there’s a shortage of skilled labor such as plumbers. Many of us have a hard time finding a plumber, even at $80 an hour – more than many college professors make.”

While we need even more four-year graduates to enter the Kansas workforce, and WSU does a great job of that, the fact is that Kansas needs a higher percentage of parents directing their children into technical fields. In a 2010 survey by Manpower, 14% of employers surveyed in the U.S. said they were having trouble finding the talent they need. In 2011, that number had jumped to 52%, yet unemployment in the country remains relatively high. This talent conundrum can be solved by channeling more of our young people into certificate and two-year degree programs. Today’s technicians are not knuckle-busting wrench vendors with few career options. Boeing, for example, predicts that by 2030 as many as 650,000 new aviation technicians will be needed including 32,500 new technicians per year to maintain and fly an expanded world fleet.

Technical colleges are, in fact, institutions of higher education. We are accredited by the same entity that accredits Wichita State University. While we are a college in every sense of the word, our focus is on providing enough well-trained employees for area employers. This means we focus on getting jobs for our students and WATC is quite successful with 95% of our graduates finding a job in their field, continuing their education, or entering the military.

The future of WATC is bright as it seeks its place among the top technical colleges in the country. Our future will include a focus on partnerships. We are exploring dramatic new models of partnering with area community colleges in healthcare. We are developing new models of delivering education with area non-profits such as Goodwill and the Urban League. WATC is expanding our partnerships with area businesses in the area of workforce training. Currently, WATC employees over 70 trainers to work directly with businesses on training and retraining tomorrow’s workforce. Our partnerships with Spirit AeroSystems, Bombardier Learjet, Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft are moving forward at breathtaking pace. This is coupled with relationships with suppliers as well as partnerships in healthcare.

WATC is an enthusiastic supporter of Gov. Brownback’s vision to have community and technical colleges collaborate more extensively with area high schools by linking college career and technical programs with existing secondary programs. The college has begun conversations with officials from the Wichita School District, Circle School District, Valley Center School District and the Derby School District about incorporating the Governor’s changes into practice. With 9,000 students at USD 259 and 1,200 students at Derby High school already taking career and technical courses, simply put, the governor’s proposal to pay the tuitions of high school students and award school districts $1000 per industry recognized college credential, is a “game changer.” And I can assure the residents of Sedgwick County that we are committed to putting to bed the old hostilities between the school district and the technical college to forge a newer, bolder partnership designed to change the culture of how we think about education in our region.

WATC is a very good technical college – and we need to get better. While we are excited to be designated by the National Association of Manufacturing (NAM) as being the world’s leader in developing and delivering aviation curriculum, and we are honored to receive legislative support for the past two years to expand the National Center for Aviation Training, we can and must continue to do a better job of getting students where they want to go and providing enough, well-trained employees for area employers. Certainly, our job is made more difficult with state funding at 2002 levels but we are rapidly reducing our debt and simultaneously increasing enrollment, and that will help with some of the needed resources to serve south central Kansas even better.

As Gordon Bethune of Continental once said, “There is no autopilot for success.”

Reach Tony Kinkel at tkinkel@watc.edu

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