School Ties

Technology is creating this urgent need for skilled workers and the uh community colleges have stepped in to fill it.

December, 2000

In a Honolulu laboratory, 36-year-old Leighton Uehara carefully prepares several glass slides in preparation of something called electrophoresis. The procedure, which shoots a steady and low-level electrical charge into a water bath, will slowly coax specimen cells to separate. It is one of the initial and most critical stages of what is commonly known as gene splicing.

Eventually, Uehara will be isolating a gene from a luminescent squid called vibrio fisheri and then transfer it into an e. Coli cell. If all goes right, the bacterium will glow and, hopefully, Uehara will earn an A.

The complicated procedure is part of Microbiology 298, a brand-new experimental course offered at Kapiolani Community College. A class like Micro 298, featuring gene splicing as part of its assignments, is offered in only a handful of community colleges across the nation, almost exclusively in cities with thriving biotechnology industries. But what is more impressive than the uniqueness of the offering is the speed at which the class was created. In about six months, KCC was able to develop and offer two classes that taught the fundamentals of biotechnology, which may be the first step in the establishment of a new industry in the Islands.

Chemical reaction:
Dr. John M Berestecky and Marcia A. Armstrong, instructors in Kapiolani Community College’s medical laboratory Program, both look forward to a bright future for biotechnology.

“We got calls from government and industry officials and were asked if we would explore the possibility of developing a biotechnician training program at KCC,” says Dr. John Berestecky, KCC instructor. “They wanted us to develop a training program so that we can support any biotech industry that comes here. We would essentially be able to provide them with a workforce.”

Berestecky and his colleagues at KCC started developing the class by surveying the few biotech companies in the state, querying them on what kinds of skills they would want in prospective workers. Their surveys indicated that they would need to teach students about advanced molecular biology and also the cultivation of bacteria, fungi, microalgae and animal cells. Several months later, Micro 298 and a three-part class called Cell and Tissue Culture Training Courses were on the college’s course catalogue.

“Community colleges in the past would wait for the need for jobs and then train people,” says John Morton, provost of KCC. “Now, we are working with business and the government to create the jobs themselves.”

At KCC, throughout University of Hawaii’s eight-campus community college system and all over the country, educational institutions are struggling to keep up with a society moving at the light speed of high technology. With industries rising, falling and rising again in the time it takes to write a thesis, technically skilled and versatile employees have become the New Economy’s hot commodity. And the community colleges with their convenient locations, flexible curriculums, and bureaucracies that have less red tape than four-year institutions, are quickly becoming training ground for that high-tech workforce.

“Community colleges are by their very nature more entreprenurial and responsive to local businesses and their needs. I guess that’s why they are called ‘community’ colleges,” says Norma Kent, director of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “In the last 10 years or so we have seen a change at the community colleges. Technology is creating this urgent need for skilled workers and the community colleges have stepped in to fill that need.”

The desk set: Kapiolani Community College was first established in 1946 as Kapiolani Technical School. In this 1963 photo, students learn “modern” office skills.

According to Kent, the median age for the community college student nationwide is now a surprisingly mature 29 years old, partly the result of an influx of students in their 40s and older, who are going back to school to learn high-tech skills. In addition, CORD, a nonprofit research group dedicated to educational improvement, reports that 20 percent of students seeking associate degrees in information technology at community colleges across the country actually hold bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts disciplines.

The student population at Hawaii’s eight community colleges is slightly younger than the national average, hovering at around 27 years old for the last decade. However, Morton has seen his campus’ demographics change even though the median age remains essentially the same. Over the past several years, he believes that the age of the “traditional” student (those working toward an AA degree and/or moving on to a four-year institution) decrease at the same time that the age for nontraditional has increased. In the past decade, the number of non-credit students has nearly tripled at Hawaii’s community college system. Now, full-time students make up only about 40 percent of the population. (Of the 11 students in Berestecky’s Micro 298 class, only three are traditional students. The others are either teachers or medical technology professionals looking to acquire new skills. Uehara is a medical tech at a local lab.)

“The biggest change has been in our attitude. We have broken out of being the traditional academic: stay four semesters, get an AA, then get a job,” says Joyce Tsunoda, senior vice president, University of Hawaii and chancellor for community colleges. “That is not what the students want, that is not what the employers want. We’ve taken on the attitude that we will offer learning anywhere, anytime to anyone.”

The biotech industry is only the latest in a growing number of businesses that have begun to work with Hawaii’s community colleges to develop programs to train potential employees. Shortly after video game maker Square USA set up shop in Honolulu in 1998, the company and KCC struck up an informal partnership in which the college would set up a training program and Square would provide computers and expertise.

In less than a year, KCC had a new media arts program with 75 mouse-wielding students. Last year, 10 students were awarded certificates in digital media. Although none has gone on to work with Square, five have found jobs with gaming rival Koname.

At HCC’s Airport Training Center on Lagoon Drive, the 80-plus local students in the college’s aeronautics maintenance program are joined by students from Northwest Airline’s Narita Japan station to receive additional training. Over 30 more Northwest students will be coming aboard in addition to possibly more mechanics from the airlines’ stations in China and Taiwan.

Last month, HCC Provost Ramsey R. Pedersen signed an agreement with the Japan Aviation Academy, the largest single trainer of aviation personnel in that country, to begin training its students.

“The aviation industry is predicted to have phenomenal growth across the globe but especially in Asia. China is going to explode,” says Pedersen. “The amount of work out there is scary.”

In addition, this past fall, a fast-tracked class in e-commerce started at both LCC and KCC. Appropriately, the classes are offered on line.

To facilitate more of these working partnerships and possibly generate revenue, this month Tsunoda will unveil the Pacific Center for Advanced Technology Training (PCATT), a sort of clearing house for businesses to access the high-tech offerings offered at the various campuses. The programs falling under PCATT’s umbrella will include computing and networking, telecommunications, aeronautics technologies and digital media.According to Pedersen, PCATT will offer a systemic mechanism in which students and businesses can find what they are looking for and university officials can keep abreast or maybe even stay ahead of industry needs.

“When colleges started to work with businesses directly, we started to adopt a lot of business practices as well-continuous quality improvement, timely delivery, etc.,” says Morton. “Particularly, you have to improve and you have to continue to listen and you have to adapt quickly.”

But can the community colleges realistically be the economic engine to not only enhance but kick-start an industry in Hawaii?

The answer depends on what industry you are asking about.

Besides its airline mechanics training programs, HCC has a two-year-old commercial aviation program, offering an associate of science degree, and Pedersen is negotiating with Chinese aviation officials to start training that country’s pilots in Hawaii. The payoff could be huge. (Currently, there is one commercial pilot school in all of China.) “It could happen in six weeks; it could happen in six years,” says Pedersen.

In addition, the school’s Airport Training facility is widely considered to be the trump card that persuaded Continental Airlines to build its maintenance in Honolulu and not Guam.

Honolulu High Tech: Honolulu Community College, where several major Web developments were made, has become a hub of training and support in the use of the Internet

“When they looked at all the facts, we had a qualified workforce, Guam didn’t,” says Pedersen. “And we had the training facility to make sure we would always have one.”

But luring high-tech industries like biotechnology to the Islands just with the promise of a qualified workforce may be a little different. According to Berestecky, it is extremely rare for a biotech firm to pick up and move to a different location, no matter how attractive or how qualified the workforce is.

“It is really rather rare to see biotech companies relocate,” says Berestecky. “We are kind of doing things the other way around, but I do think that it is a reasonable way to approach this. If there is a concerted push by the state to develop biotech in Hawaii, and if there is a discovery up at Manoa, we will be ready. Build it and they will come, they say. Or in our case, splice and they will come.”


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