Collin College partners with businesses, workforce commission for technical training
Chris Beattie/Staff Photo -- Collin College President Cary Israel speaks on the importance of public-private partnerships and retaining a technical-training base in Texas. Since the mid-1990s, the college's Center for Workforce and Economic Development has used state grants to further technical and vocational education in the area.
Collin College continued its role in enhancing local businesses Wednesday when it accepted a $192,859 Skills Development Fund (SDF) grant from the Texas Workforce Commission.
Partnering with a manufacturing consortium -- Advantage Machine & Manufacturing, Natural Polymer International Corp. (NPIC) and Network Engines, Inc. (NEI) -- the college is using the money to train 103 new and current employees between the companies in manufacturing software packages and processes, project management and financial accounting.
"You can't have a strong economy without a strong manufacturing base," Tom Pauken, TWC commissioner, said before presenting the grant check to Collin College officials. "And, while Texas is the number one place in America to do business, our manufacturing sector over the last decade has really...hollowed out."
Through its Skills Development program, TWC gives such training grants to technical and community colleges around the state to "connect businesses with value-added workforce solutions, and develop innovative economic and workforce strategies," according to the 2011 SDF report.
Businesses target training to create new jobs or to further develop existing employees' skills, thus keeping up with an ever-advancing workforce. And partners like Collin College are able to strengthen their curricula while administering the grant, offering assessment services and facilitating the training.
"We pay for everything up front," Natalie Greenwell, director of the college's Center for Workforce and Economic Development (CWED), said of the SDF partnerships. "It's also meant for us to be out in the community and learning and building capacity."
The money from Wednesday's check actually went into effect about a month ago, and is set to last a year. Greenwell said it's the college's 20th such grant since 1994; some provided training for 12 companies at a time, others for just one. "It runs the gamut," she said.
"The last grant trained people in robotics because [the company] has robots on the plant floor," she said. "In order to really utilize that high-end equipment, they needed more training. They were immediately able to go back and be more productive."
Last year, the TWC approved 43 SDF grant applications for 13 state Comptroller Regions, with 16 -- three times more approvals than the next closest region -- for the Metroplex, which includes DFW and its surroundings. Those trained under the SDF program in the Metroplex earned an average weekly wage of $937, according to the 2011 report.
The region last year accounted for about $6 million in grant funding, or 41 percent of the funding awarded statewide. Based in the college's Courtyard Center in Plano, the CWED has become a consistent funnel for those funds -- another notch on a max-potential belt well-recognized around the state.
"There's no better place, in my opinion, to bring education dollars," state Rep. Ken Paxton said of the college at Wednesday's presentation. "They use money more efficiently and more effectively than anything I've ever seen."
Collin College maintains the lowest tuition and third-lowest tax rate of Texas colleges. President Cary Israel expressed the school's ongoing work to "better deliver in the career area," through dual-credit and continuing-education courses, and blends between high schools, Collin College and universities.
"We're going to continue to look at other ways to collaborate so we can leverage our dollars, be cost-effective, but rebuild what we have lost in this country," said Israel, echoing Pauken's concern that America's losing its manufacturing base.
The most recent grant provides $2,000 per trainee for the three companies, each of which has operated for about 15 years. Advantage Machine, a HUB Zone manufacturer that specializes in CNC machining (milling and turning), will use the grant to ensure its 11 employees keep current with required CAM software and processes.
Plano-based NPIC makes the N-bone product, a line of edible chew treats for pets, and wants to prepare for expansion into a larger domestic pet market. And NEI, which creates storage, security, enterprise and carrier communication appliances sold around the world, will further train employees in lean manufacturing and leadership management.
Those trained will include technical support specialists, electronic technicians and machinists. Upon completion of their training, they'll earn an average hourly wage of $25.22.
Such specialized training, Pauken said, often leads to high-paying careers -- even higher than jobs gained after typical four-year degree paths. Yet, the average age of a welder is 55 years old; 56 for a master plumber; and 69 for a craftsman/stonemason.
"I think we've choked off the pipeline by neglect of what we used to call vocational and technical education, and we're paying the price for it," Pauken said. "Salaries, ironically, are very good in the technical trades."
He said technical training needs to be more available and refined in high school, before students choose their higher-education path. Though some school districts stand out in auto-shop training and others in information technology, technical education just isn't prominent enough at the secondary level, he said.
For those who wait until they turn their tassels to pursue it, there is plenty of workforce training at and through Collin College, and because of the SDF program, through similar partnerships around Texas.
"Kids learn differently; some kids learn with their hands, other kids learn with their head, and we've got to recognize there's not this one-size-fits-all approach," Pauken said. "We can figure out how to solve this problem of the number one demand in America: the shortage of skilled workers."