Education With Purpose: Teaching Students the Skills Necessary for a Job

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

Deborah ShephardOn Wednesday, September 21, I was honored to be included in a Champions of Change Roundtable discussion about two-year colleges and their impact on our nation. It was a great opportunity to talk about the business model Lake Area Technical institute uses to prepare students for today’s workforce.

LATI graduates over 75% of its students. Students attain graduation because they are required to be in an identified program with a graduation plan from the first day of their enrollment. The graduation plan sets expectations and prescribes the courses needed, the course sequence, and attendance requirements. No student is allowed to meander through general courses seeking a path. Instruction is geared to be project-based and hands-on. Program instructors are required to know their students personally and are responsible for student attainment. Instructors are hired based not only upon their work experience but also their ability to connect with students. An instructor’s passion for the occupational area and personality is more important than academic credentials.

LATI’s latest Placement Rate is 98%. When we start a program, we examine three things: can we attract students to this program? Do we have the capability and the capacity to teach the program? Will there be ample good jobs with benefits in South Dakota for the graduates?

America has an increasing issue with a mismatch between the qualifications of its labor force and the skills required for open positions. Jobs go unfilled because unemployed citizens do not have the skills demanded. Two-year colleges can provide the focused education needed to fill these openings quickly. Enrollment in one and two year career programs must expand to meet projected workforce need. Since over 70% of the jobs require technical skills, society needs to acknowledge the value of this type of education. Lake Area Tech works extremely hard to communicate that these degrees are as vital to our country as any type of degree.

LATI has strong vital partnerships with businesses. Every program has an active Advisory Board which meets each semester to provide input on curriculum and relay industry trends which impact our instruction. Partners are asked to contribute time, talent, and financial resources. LATI stays adaptable and relevant due to its Participatory Management Structure and Strategic Planning Process being on a six-month vice five-year cycle.

We are positioned to evolve as our workforce demands. We welcome the opportunity to discuss what works for us, in the hopes that others may benefit in the same manner we benefit from hearing their innovative thoughts. While our size drives us to be efficient, it also puts some solutions out of reach as we do not have the economies of scale of the large institutes.

LATI would like to extend our sincere gratitude to the Obama Administration and the underwriters of the Aspen Institute Community College Excellence Prize. These forums are not only shining a light on community colleges, but the focus on student achievement is pointing the country’s emphasis in the right direction.

Deborah Shephard is President of Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI), a post-secondary technical college with over 1600 students enrolled in 27 different programs.

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