Training Modern IT Professionals


As the current tech landscape continues to surge forward, how is it that four community colleges, from two states, can collectively stay at the forefront of training IT professionals?  A recent convening of instructors, academic leadership and administration, from the Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training grant funded Rural Information Technology Alliance (RITA), provided insight into what it will take to meet the growing demand for skilled information technology workers. 

“The market for techs in our area is strong, but our supply of students is not meeting their demands,” states Larry Handlin, RITA Grant Manager at Ridgewater College.  Handlin’s point was echoed throughout the two day convening, held at Central Lakes College in mid-May, which included all four RITA colleges; Central Lakes College (CLC), North Central Texas College (NCTC), Pine Technical and Community College (PTCC) and Ridgewater College.

With instructors, academic deans and grant leadership from four colleges in the same room for two days, the benefits began to quickly compound.  On day one, VDI Administrator Robin Fischer led a hands-on workshop where instructors were able to share how they’ve incorporated the consortium’s powerful virtualization resource in their course curriculums.  Along with providing students hands-on virtual labs, instructors discussed how they’ve leveraged the virtualization resources to overcome would-be learning barriers that include poor internet connections and lack of access to software and hardware.  Fischer summed up how students and instructors benefit from the shared virtual resources when she said, “The sky is the limit; we’re only limited by our imagination.”

Following the virtualization discussions, instructor led sessions focused on RITA’s three main program areas; networking, programming and mobile application development, and cyber-security.  During each session, one instructor would delve into the details of everything from how they structured their curriculum, labs and assignments; to how they’ve engaged local businesses, created internship opportunities and built a learning community.  With an audience comprised of top teaching talent that included multiple nationally recognized instructors, the discussions during each session contained a wealth of knowledge.  Doug Akins and Donnie Willis, Cisco Certified Networking Instructors at NCTC, led the discussions on networking.  They reviewed how their lab had been upgraded through the RITA grant and how the installation of the lab at the Corinth, TX, campus was completed by NCTC Networking students under the supervision of Akins.  Akins, who was just recognized for excellence in teaching by the Cisco Networking Academy also discussed some of the challenges faced in teaching networking when operating within the college’s secure network.  Willis described the successes he had seen in retention with the number of students starting at the beginning of term and ending the term remaining almost the same.  Following the session on networking, CLC instructor Sam Espana led discussions on mobile application development, which involved instructors from multiple disciplines sharing how they’ve incorporated mobile security into their course curriculums.

In-Depth With Cyber-Security

Chris Morgan created the Cyber-Security program at PTCC and shared his session with Kevin Henson, who teaches Cyber-Security at NCTC and was recently a national finalist for the Cybersecurity Educator of the Year award.  Like many other IT disciplines, it’s difficult to find and keep good cyber-security instructors, because outside of education, skilled security professionals can command salaries well into six figures.  As a retired Airforce Veteran, Morgan has over 20 years’ experience in network security, and Henson maintains a position with Cyber Defense Labs while teaching at NCTC.  As is the case with many RITA programs, both Morgan and Henson are turning the Cyber-Security degrees at PTCC and NCTC into destination-programs for cyber-security training.

Going in-depth during their session, Morgan and Henson shared the details of their programs, to both benefit their colleagues and invite input.  Morgan discussed how he’s been able to build relationships with local business partners, which has allowed him to structure course curriculum around the skills currently needed in the industry.  Those partnerships have also led to numerous internships that pay students between $15-20 per hour.  In addition to sharing the details of his flipped classroom, Henson shared a lab exercise that has been gaining recognition among students at NCTC.  In Red Versus Blue, Henson split cyber-security students into two groups and essentially created a controlled cyber war.  Each team had to build and defend their network, while going on the offensive against the other team.  Helpful details like Henson’s lab exercise and Morgan’s approach to partnership engagement were discussed throughout the two day event. 

Emerging Trends          

In addition to the sessions led by instructors, each RITA grant manager discussed the unique approach their college has taken toward training IT professionals.  It didn’t take long for patterns to emerge.  Industry feedback on the importance of certifications was consistent for each college.  “I sent three students to an interview and the one who got the job has their CCNA certification.  He had the least the experience, but he got the job and a significant increase to his income,” states Judy Archer, CITE Department Chair at NCTC. 

Another theme that emerged at each college was the difficulty in recruiting and retaining female IT students.  “Every time I have a female student, they're the ones who excel, and then they get jobs and leave,” says NCTC Networking instructor Doug Akins.  It would seem that students getting jobs before graduation is a good problem to have, however, the difficulty lies in getting prospective students, especially female students, to understand the opportunities within the field of IT.  While the objectives of the RITA grant focus on training displaced workers and adult learners, each RITA college has identified a need for reaching prospective students while in the K12 system.  In contrast to well-established career paths like nursing, high school counselors are less equipped to discuss the opportunities within tech careers, like mobile application development and cyber-security.  This impacts male and female K12 students alike, and the effects are apparent among students in RITA programs.   

RITA Grant Manager Larry Handlin noted that even among students in Ridgewater’s IT programs, there’s a lack of awareness of the career opportunities that are available for graduates of two year tech programs.  To combat this reality, Handlin organized a student field trip to the prominent tech company, The Nerdery, and has had the FBI and local businesses speak with students about the career opportunities that await them.  Handlin’s efforts were mentioned among many similar examples that were shared during the two day convening of RITA faculty, staff and administration.  Although the reality is there aren’t enough students pursing tech degrees to fill the growing need for IT professionals, many student success stories have emerged through RITA’s collective efforts.  PTCC instructor Chris Morgan may have summarized the focus of the two day event best when he said, “In the end, we’re all here to get students employed.”