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Joe Ontjes: WATC delivers education that works

  • Published Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, at 3:21 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, at 4:06 p.m.

Roughly eight years ago, Sedgwick County officials and business leaders envisioned a high-tech, high-wage career pipeline that would prepare students for high-demand jobs. Today, that vision is a reality as Wichita Area Technical College emerges as a national leader in modern technical education.

At the new National Center for Aviation Training, which is one of WATC’s three Wichita campuses, students study composite materials, aviation maintenance, aerospace coatings, avionics, robotics and dozens of other subjects in state-of-the-art labs. Training is provided by instructors boasting decades of expertise.

Under the same roof, WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research conducts a portion of its operations. Fulfilling the mission envisioned by industry leaders and Sedgwick County officials, WATC enjoys strong public and private support because it helps achieve key economic development objectives.

The community benefits are profound: Students find good jobs and businesses receive job candidates with relevant skills. Now others are taking note. In the fall of 2012, WATC landed a $14.9 million U.S. Department of Labor grant to lead a consortium of community colleges seeking to implement standardized, industry-approved aviation training curricula.

Nonetheless, aviation is but one of five divisions through which WATC delivers education that works. The college offers dozens of programs in such areas as robotics, welding, machining technology and engineering design.

Although NCAT is its largest campus in terms of square footage, WATC has a higher student headcount at its Southside Education Center and Grove campuses. There students pursue certificates or two-year degrees in health care, business, interior design, HVAC and automotive technologies.

As a Kansas Board of Regents institution, WATC delivers general education courses both in the classroom and online. Traditional college subjects taught include English, math, science, psychology and dozens more.

This comprehensive approach equips graduates for workplace effectiveness or the pursuit of a baccalaureate degree elsewhere.

Partnerships are a critical component of WATC’s success. Last year, the college collaborated with Pratt Community College in a nursing program that allows the two schools to share instructors, administrators, classrooms and budgets.

WATC also continues to work closely with the Workforce Centers of South Central Kansas, Goodwill Industries, the Urban League of Kansas and others.

Some of WATC’s strongest relationships are with employers.

Close ties to local industry contribute to an amazing placement success rate for WATC graduates. In 2012, 97 percent of graduates either found employment, continued their education at WATC or elsewhere, or joined the military.

At a skills summit hosted at WATC last fall, industry leaders from across the state gathered to underscore the importance of employees acquiring industry credentials. Debbie Gann, vice president of communications and administration at Spirit AeroSystems, explained that credentialed employees require less training, are more productive and remain employed longer.

State support for skills training is setting a national precedent. Gov. Sam Brownback’s initiative delivers tuition and transportation opportunities for high school students pursuing college-level training and industry credentials in high-demand career fields. The Legislature will fund the initiative with $8 million annually for at least two years.

Such efforts have led to hundreds of high school students taking classes at WATC from Wichita’s USD 259 schools, Valley Center, Maize and Derby, among others.

Although WATC students seeking certificates or degrees are perhaps the most visible learners on campus, the college’s non-credit programs reach thousands more across Wichita for short-term, customizable training. WATC’s Employer and Career Services Division offers more than 60 subject matter experts delivering training at local employers and online.

WATC has grown to be the largest technical college in Kansas. With its student headcount growing at a 20 percent clip over the prior year, it boasted the highest growth percentages of any two- or four-year college in Kansas.

Not content with its recent accomplishments, WATC continues to innovate and strive for excellence as it redefines the role of technical education in Wichita and beyond. In light of Wichita’s strong support for WATC, the community deserves nothing less.

Joe Ontjes is vice president of marketing and student services at Wichita Area Technical College.

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