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Many community college students in Texas are getting jobs in the state’s turbo-charged oil and gas industry. But the energy job market can change quickly, so several Texas community colleges have partnered with the industry to create “stackable credentials” that allow students to re-enter college seamlessly when they need more training.

Efficiency is the goal of the statewide effort, which began three years ago.

Community colleges are working hard to keep up with petrochemical companies’ demand for workers. The jobs pay well, and many associate degree-holders earn $50,000 to $70,000 a year right out of college.

“We’re seeing people from all over the country and world moving here,” said Ian Roark, dean of career, technical and workforce education at Odessa College.

The two-pronged challenge for the colleges is to give students the training employers want and to make sure it matches up with offerings at other Texas community colleges. That’s because students tend to bounce around the state to follow energy-industry jobs. And they often enroll at a nearby two-year institution to get additional training when they relocate.

Several community colleges have teamed up to create a central core of 36 credits toward a 60-credit associate degree aimed at oil and gas workers. Those courses, which include 15 credits' worth of accreditor-mandated general education requirements and 21 credits of specialized soft and mechanical skills training, are designed to transfer around the state.

The result is that students can avoid losing credits when they arrive on a new campus or re-enroll, said Lynda Villanueva, vice president of academic and student affairs at Brazosport College.

“They don’t want to have to start all over again, at the very bottom,” she said.

Certificate to Degree

The collaboration in Texas is about more than associate degrees, however. Community college leaders have created a full career pathway for the energy industry, complete with several layers of stackable credentials.

That approach, which is appears to be gaining steam in the academy, links a series of certificates and degrees in specific discipline. Each credential builds upon the previous one, and courses for shorter-term certificates count toward degrees.

Roark said students now have “multiple entrance and exit points” to community college as they progress in their petrochemical-industry careers. At each point they can earn credentials the industry has deemed valuable.

The first layer is a “marketable skills achievement award,” which ranges from 9 to 14 credits, said Jeff Parks, dean of industrial and applied technology at San Jacinto College. That short-term certificate shows that a student has the basic training needed to get an entry-level job. Certificates can be tailored to jobs in the energy industry or other technical fields.

Next up is a “level one” certificate, which usually takes a year to complete. For example, a basic certificate in process technology at Brazosport is 15 credits. Others can be more involved, with 18 or more credits.

Level two certificates follow. They tend to be somewhat-specialized 30-credit programs. Eventually students can wrap up 60-credit associate degrees in production or processing technology.

That’s not even the last step. Some community colleges have partnered with four-year institutions to create transitions to bachelor’s programs for oil and gas workers. Brazosport, for example, has a transfer agreement with the nearby University of Houston at Victoria for a bachelor’s in applied technology.

One reason for the push in Texas is so students who leave for jobs before completing their degree will hold some form of credential. Short-term certificates have some value in the work place, experts said, and can also help students get a head start on a degree if they return to college.

Many of the largest employers in the oil and gas industry, like Chevron or Dow Chemical, require new hires to hold an associate degree. But some will hire students as they work toward that degree, at intern pay levels that can be as much as $22 an hour, according to Roark.

Companies will also sometimes hire students with a level-one certificate. Students tend to return to college after working in those more entry-level jobs.

“They’ll get some experience there and then they’ll come back,” said Parks.

Thanks to the new stackable track, the 36-credit core is constant throughout.

“All of the credits will apply,” Villanueva said.

Hard Work

Stackable credentials sound like common sense. But creating the pathways is harder than it may seem.

“You are asking faculty to do some fundamental redesign,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

Faculty members must work with their peers at other colleges to build a core curriculum, which must apply to a wide range of jobs in a career cluster. That might mean adding courses for the common core or changing how courses are taught at some campuses.

“The traditional academic system is not, frankly, friendly to stackable credentials,” said Roark, who called the process tedious but worthwhile.

Other states have joined Texas in giving stackable credentials a whirl. Perhaps most notably, North Carolina’s community colleges have created a green-jobs pathway across 58 institutions. The colleges eliminated 100 systemwide courses to build the stackable track.

The feds are also encouraging stackable credentials. The U.S. Department of Labor has funded the creation of stackable career pathways as part of $2 billion in work force development grants.

Parks played a leadership role in helping Texas community colleges design their energy-industry curriculum. The work started three years ago with a Perkins Leadership Grant, which is a state pot of money aimed at career and technical education.

At the time oil and gas companies were correctly predicting a big wave of hiring, Parks said. Some company officials had contacted community colleges to help them get ready. He and other college leaders used the state money to begin creating an associate degree for the field.

Community college faculty members and administrators joined industry representatives in reviewing a catalog of 1,100 courses to select ones that made the most sense for petrochemical-industry certificates and degrees.

More career paths are going to get the same treatment in Texas, said community college officials there. The allied health and information technology fields are likely candidates, among others.

Rey Garcia, president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, said the creation of stackable credentials is an emerging trend.

It’s hard work, he said, in part because college must work closely with employers. And in states like Texas, where performance-based funding is being expanded, community college leaders will need to ensure that their institutions get credit for short-term certificates in funding formulas. Decisions about how to count a 15-credit certificate toward graduation rates have yet to be sorted out, he said.

Yet Garcia said stackable credentials are worth the effort, and pay off for both students and employers.

“We’ve just got to make sure we do it right,” he said.

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