Henry Ford Community College: Lessons from Past

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Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” He tried to instill this ideal in his workers by encouraging them to continue their education and improve their technical skills at the Henry Ford Trade School, which opened in 1916.

When the trade school closed its doors in 1952, Ford Motor Co. passed on this mission, along with the school’s assets, to a junior college in Dearborn, Mich. This school, which was renamed Henry Ford Community College (HFCC), used this money to expand and improve its scientific and technical training programs.

HFCC continues to carry out Ford’s mandate today, offering cutting-edge technological courses and certification programs that meet the needs of the modern IT workforce.

Although HFCC is a public institution, the college and Ford Motor Co. have continued to work together on educational initiatives. In a recent partnership, Ford teamed up with HFCC to help its employees improve their technical skills and earn industry certifications.

Todd Browning, a Cisco instructor at HFCC, said this partnership grew out of Ford’s need to supplement its IT workers’ university degrees with the hands-on experience and certifications the college could offer.

“In this industry, not only are corporations wanting the college degree, they’re also wanting certifications,” Browning said. “At Ford Motor Co., they already have a number of employees with bachelor’s degrees, but they want them to obtain the industry certifications. It goes back to the roots that Henry Ford set up when he started the trade school, saying, ‘We already have these employees, but they need to maintain their level of expertise and knowledge.’”

As with most of the auto companies in Detroit, Ford recently restructured its workforce, giving many senior employees the opportunity to retire early with  generous severance packages. This situation can create brain drain within an organization, Browning said, making it difficult for junior-level employees to learn on the job from their superiors.

To help workers get the experience they need, Ford pays for certification courses and allows its employees to take some of the classes during work hours. This means that instead of dedicating two evenings a week, plus a Saturday or Sunday, to getting certified, workers have to spend only one evening or weekend day each week in class.

Previously, Ford used a boot camp-style program to prepare its workers for certification exams, but these fast-track courses didn’t produce the desired results, said Clydene Stangvik, the area academy manager for the Cisco Networking Academy. With the opportunity to work in HFCC’s labs and spend extra time with their instructors, students could more effectively prepare for their certification exams, she said.

“With the competitive workforce that’s needed in today’s market, employees have to keep up their skills,” Stangvik said. “This opportunity is in Ford’s backyard, so employees can come over to HFCC and do extensive hands-on training and have quality instruction at a more relaxed pace.”

For students who don’t have the luxury of earning their certifications on work time, HFCC offers flexible class schedules and comprehensive degree programs that cover a wide range of IT topics, including certification.

As one of the first U.S. schools to sign on to the Cisco Networking Academy program, HFCC adopted a dual-degree and certification program in 1998, which allowed students to prepare for their Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) while they earned their associate degree in applied science.

James Knerr, who earned an associate degree in applied science in May, said being able to get his certification and his degree at the same time already has helped him get a job and will continue to benefit him.

“By having both my degree and my certification, employers will see that not only am I capable of setting up a Cisco environment with Cisco equipment, but I can also operate the servers and everything else that goes along with a network,” he said.

Because of personal time constraints, if the two weren’t joined in the same program, Knerr said he would have been able to get only his certification.

Having to choose one program over the other might cause problems for students in the near future, as employers begin to look for both credentials and degrees in their new hires, said Gene Longo, Cisco Networking Academy senior manager of U.S. field operations.

“What we’re hearing from employers is that the bar is raised for their expectations,” he said. “Because the technology is getting more complex, they want people who not only have a certification — they’re looking for somebody who also has some level of postsecondary degree.”

Yet, because of the shortage of skilled IT professionals in the workforce, many companies, including Ford, resort to hiring workers with general computer science skills and helping them earn their certifications. According to Longo, the field is still recovering from the uncertainty created during the dot-com bust that discouraged many students from entering the field.

“In the IT area, we’re starting to see a workforce shortage,” he said. “Almost everywhere I go, I hear from employers, ‘We can’t find people to hire.’ They’re stealing from each other because that’s the only place to find people, but they’re not solving the problem.”

To address this shortage, Cisco has partnered with community colleges, including HFCC, and many high schools across the country to foster a healthy level of participation in IT programs and encourage young workers to enter the field.

Although the program started in 1997 as a series of classes that taught students the basics of networking, it has evolved into a comprehensive curriculum that teaches students about many aspects of IT, including network administration, security and wireless networks.

Through these partnerships with high schools and colleges, Cisco has worked to build a learning program that allows students to move seamlessly from one level of education to the next. As with many community colleges, HFCC allows high school students to spend part of their day at the college taking IT courses, which can count as college credits if they choose to continue their IT training.

Longo said community colleges provide the best opportunities to build these bridges because they generally have more flexible institutional structures and are more focused on addressing workforce needs than most four-year universities.

“Community colleges as a whole are really attune to the workforce issues in their community,” Longo said. “When universities try to change directions, it’s very hard, but community colleges are very adaptable to market conditions.”

Attracting younger students to IT and providing opportunities for older students to improve their skills will help the United States compete in the international IT marketplace, Longo explained. If U.S. students don’t refocus their attention on technical fields, the country will continue to fall behind in the race to develop the best technologies.

“We need to go out to our student base and start building the next generation of students interested in computer science and engineering, or else the U.S. is really going to be at a disadvantage down the road,” Longo said. “We’re losing that competitive edge because we’re not growing the higher end of the workforce.”

Fortunately, local institutions such as HFCC are dedicated to improving the skills of America’s IT workforce. In its attempt to live up to Henry Ford’s education directive and help workers help themselves, Stangvik said HFCC has done very well.

“HFCC always wants to be on the cutting edge to provide students and employees with the skills they need,” she said. “Whatever it takes, they’re always focused on meeting their community’s needs.”

- Tegan Jones, editor (at) certmag (dot) com

CertScope

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