Something needed to change. Lee DeWeese had been working retail for the last few years, and it wasn’t enough. He needed something that paid more.
His long-time friend Cory McMillan told him about Wichita Promise, a scholarship program at Wichita Area Technical College that provides tuition and fees for select programs.
The two applied and now are Wichita Promise students in WATC’s machining automation program.
“It’s given us everything we need to succeed,” McMillan said. Without the financial support from Wichita Promise, he said, he would probably be in a job that offered little promise.
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“I just want more than that,” McMillan said.
The Wichita Promise program began last fall with 63 students and added 67 more this spring.
“If finance is the only reason you are not going back to school, we remove that barrier so students can make a change,” said Monica Stewart, senior director of strategic innovations at WATC.
The program provides four parts — tuition and fees; training in high-wage, high-demand jobs; career coaching; and a guaranteed interview with a potential employer.
Sheree Utash, president of WATC, said she was inspired by similar programs in states like Tennessee. She saw the program as a way to bring industry and education together for a common goal.
“We needed to focus on certain job training where we needed more output of students than we were getting,” Utash said.
Filling labor gaps
WATC has identified several areas with a demand for technical jobs that offer high wages. Wichita Promise aims to provide training to fill those gaps in the labor force.
This school year, the program included 11 programs involving aviation, manufacturing and healthcare. Some courses are eight weeks and some are longer.
“It’s a big initiative to bring everybody together in the community to grow our workforce because we have a huge shortage of skilled labor,” said James Hall, dean of aviation technologies at WATC.
A series of seminars called “Bring your A Game” instructs students in skills such as dressing for the job and being a valuable employee.
“Our training programs really lead into more than just that entry-level job right out of college, but developing their career over time,” Stewart said.
After completing the program, all Wichita Promise students are guaranteed an interview with an industry partner of the Wichita Promise program, such as Spirit AeroSystems.
A new workforce
Students must have a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for the program. The age range varies. Stewart said it is common to see recent high school graduates working alongside older adults who decided to make a career change.
Most of the Wichita Promise students had never taken a class at WATC, creating a new market of students for the college.
“Either they were working in fast food or they were underemployed in another industry,” Hall said. “In eight weeks, they come through a series of classes and it gets them an opening directly into one of the major manufacturers here in town.”
Within a few weeks of starting any program, the students are already in the labs working on airplanes, cars and machines. The hands-on experience helps keep the students interested and excited about their training, said Jerry Berry, lead faculty for industrial automation.
“They get to walk up to a piece of equipment; they get to work with it rather than just sit there and listen to an instructor,” Berry said. “If they can immediately see cause and effect on something they’re doing, it sticks with them a lot more.”
The Wichita Promise Program is funded by an initiative within the college; $125,000 of WATC’s marketing budget was transferred to it as well as $175,000 from the internal scholarship budget, Utash said.
The college plans to extend Wichita Promise into the fall; a list of covered programs will be released on WATC’s website. The scholarships are awarded on a first-come basis to students who meet the requirements.
For now, the Wichita Promise program is meeting the needs of students to meet needs in the workforce.
“It provides us with the opportunity to fulfill industry needs while at the same time giving new opportunities to individuals that may not be in the position where they can afford to do that,” Berry said.