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WTI reaches out to match business needs

The technical institute sets up committees with business representatives to ensure that its programs are properly preparing students to meet industry needs.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2001


INVERNESS -- From the day Steven Hand became director of the Withlacoochee Technical Institute last July, he made it a priority to get the Citrus business community more involved with the school.

He jumped right into that challenge, spending his first weeks on the job attending chamber of commerce meetings and visiting with business leaders, picking their brains for ideas and offering the school's services.

What Hand learned was just what he suspected.

"There was a very strong degree of interest in involvement by the business community," he said.

Armed with that information, Hand got busy back at WTI. As soon as his faculty came back for the new school year, he pushed for a strong new emphasis on having each program set up an advisory committee packed with industry representatives. Unlike previous committees set up by various programs, the school staff functions as support rather than as the committee backbone, allowing the business people to set the committees' direction.

Hand gave his faculty a detailed guide so that instructors knew how to make such advisory committees work.

"This is not rocket science," Hand said. "This is just the way to go about getting good representative input year after year."

Hand had big plans for what those committees would be doing for the school and in turn for the businesses each of the committee members represented. At every one of the committee meetings, he wanted the members to talk about specific items.

The most important topic for discussion should be gathering feedback from the various members about the quality of WTI graduates. But there are other areas to address as well.

Hand said the committees must discuss the program curriculum to be sure it addresses the skills needed in the industry. They also need to discuss the way the concepts are taught at WTI, in case the business representatives had better alternatives.

The committee also should discuss whether WTI has the tools necessary to teach the needed skills and, if the school doesn't, then a detailed list of new items needed should be developed. Those lists will ultimately become the WTI technology improvement plan, and it will serve as the foundation for the school's next budget.

Hand said he knows that is a large order for volunteer committees composed of people with day jobs. So he wants them to know that the recommendations they make will be heard by WTI. He has promised to quickly answer the committees' various questions and has committed to having some member of the school's administration at each meeting.

Another way the school is trying to meet businesses' needs is by having WTI provide training in areas that employers have noted. New additions include Microsoft user training, computer repair, programming and network wiring installation.

Another project has been the development of a dual-enrollment agreement proposed between the county's high schools and WTI. Several years ago, the state allowed students to take dual- enrollment courses through community colleges without financially penalizing the home high school for the time the student was away.

Now Hand is trying to get that same provision approved by the School Board for high school students bound for WTI training programs. That will provide incentives for high schools to send students to the technical institute for training because they will no longer lose state funding when they do so.

"This way schools will not be faced with financial decisions . . . and they will send the high school students over here who ought to be here," Hand said.

The extra state money generated by the dual-enrollment agreement could then be equally split between the high school and WTI to use for their technology improvement plans.

One of Hand's biggest challenges is to change the community's mindset about the school. A very prestigious undertaking in other places, technical programs in the South have traditionally been seen as lower-end programs, he said.

Hand wants to change that by educating people about the kind of training that graduates will need.

Only 20 percent of jobs require college preparation, and that figure has remained largely unchanged in recent decades. But the percentage of jobs requiring technical training has changed dramatically.

In 1950, 60 percent of jobs were available to unskilled workers, and 20 percent required technical training. Now, five decades later, 65 percent of jobs require technical training of the sort offered by WTI, and only 15 percent of available jobs are for unskilled workers.

Hand said he knows that assures the future of the school's mission, if he can just get the word out to the students and parents who need to hear it. "The world and the path of success for students has changed," he said.

One way that message might hit home will come when more people hear that, in Florida, technical school graduates are now earning more in their first year than students who have bachelor's degrees.

"Parents need to know that," Hand said. "My job is that I have to move this institution toward breaking the old mold."

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