How community colleges are bringing hands-on training closer to home

by Joseph K. Clark

Valencia College sprung into action when Florida residents who lost their jobs or had their hours reduced due to the pandemic were looking to retrain for new employment last fall. The community college, based in Orlando, partnered with a local workforce organization to offer accelerated training in various fields at the Orange County Convention Center. Orange County used the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to fund the program. Although the pop-up site was new, Valencia is well-versed in conducting short-term training programs across the region.


The college runs four Centers for Accelerated Training sites that combine classrooms and hands-on lab space. They offer four- to 18-week training programs that lead to industry certifications in logistics, construction, and welding. “We try to only put programs in place that address the talent needs of employers in critical industries,” said Carol Traynor, Valencia’s senior director of public relations.

The college rotates specific programs through locations to increase students’ access to them. Such programs also bring training closer to where students are. “It removes transportation as a major educational barrier,” Traynor said. Valencia considers proximity to public transportation, the absence of alternative training options, and local demographics when deciding where to locate a center.


Valencia is one of several community colleges across the country rethinking how education is delivered by bringing hands-on training to students at remote and underserved locations. College officials say this method expands higher ed access and helps students gain industry-recognized certifications and better wages.

“Students who often are in (career and technical) programs are disproportionately adults working in some capacity who are facing these time and location constraints,” said Justin Ortagus, a higher education professor at the University of Florida. “Especially if they are rural students or an education desert, this approach can make a lot of sense.”

Ortagus sees parallels between bringing hands-on education directly to students and developing infrastructure for online education. While both programs might be expensive to launch, they can be an important way to increase access to training in high-demand professions.

Bringing hands-on experience to students

Valencia launched the first of its four Centers for Accelerated Training in 2016 with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The centers house short-term programs meant to “provide enough hands-on experience that employers would hire those students without significant industry experience,” said Joe Battista, Valencia’s vice president of global, professional, and continuing education.

Lynn Garcia recently completed a 10-week program at Valencia that trained her to become an apartment maintenance technician. “Especially with this field, you have to have hands-on experience to understand what you’re reading and seeing and doing because some things aren’t exactly like they are in the books,” Garcia said.

According to Traynor, 95% of students enrolled at Valencia’s training centers complete their program, and 81% are placed in a career in their field within three months.

Although federal financial aid can’t be applied to short-term programs, the college’s foundation and nonprofit partners often provide grants to students. The centers target people who are under or unemployed. “In central Florida, we have a lot of people who have been laid off from hospitality careers, and they’re looking to transition to something new,” she said.

“Especially if they are rural students or an education desert, this approach can make a lot of sense.” Justin Ortagus. Higher ed professor, University of Florida. Meanwhile, one community college in Maine hopes to help students in rural parts of the state’s northern region earn college credentials.

In Bangor, Eastern Maine Community College helps run an outreach center in the Katahdin region and has a second one in Piscataquis County. The centers allow people in communities away from the main campus to take classes closer to home.

The two sites run a two-year nursing program in partnership with local hospitals to help them recruit and retain nursing staff. “Hospitals in the rural parts of the state struggle to attract a workforce,” said Debora Rountree, associate academic dean at Eastern Maine.

The hospital in Piscataquis County pays one of its senior nurses to work as a clinical instructor. At the same time, the college uses a $60,000 state labor department grant to help offset the costs for the Katahdin region hospital’s instructor.

Rountree said the programs target people who might not have gone to college right after high school or are place-bound because of family or work commitments.

Rountree said that Eastern Maine just graduated its first group of 12 nursing students, all of whom are now working in the field.

Looking to partners

Some community colleges partner with four-year institutions to bring hands-on education to their students. In the fall of 2019, Michigan State University’s Institute of Agricultural Technology debuted a mobile food processing lab that it will bring to a handful of community college partners around the state.

While students couldn’t use the lab during the pandemic, college officials hope that will change next fall. Regional employers told Michigan State they need food processing employees with training beyond high school, said Jeffrey Sawada, director of its undergraduate food science program. They also want workers with supervisory experience who know how to fix broken equipment.

But most community colleges don’t have laboratories with processing equipment, Sawada said. Michigan State’s solution was the traveling processing lab. This lets students take their prerequisite courses in math and science at the community colleges while the university provides hands-on training about food processing technology and safety, Sawada said.

“It’s really in the best interest of the community and in the best interests of the students that we serve to look at a different model that will be a win-win for employers and the community.” Debora Rountree. Associate academic dean, Eastern Maine Community College

Students working in the lab can earn a two-year certificate in food processing, technology, and safety from Michigan State’s agricultural technology department and an associate degree from their community college.

Sawada said the customized trailer cost around $1.2 million, which an external grant covered. It includes equipment that can be swapped out for various processing — such as juicing grapes, making applesauce, or peeling potatoes — allowing the trailer to be used in different parts of the state.

“The trailer itself has all the utilities and functionality that a large food processing plant would have but in miniature,” Sawada said.

Can these programs grow?

One of the challenges of hands-on education is that it can be challenging to scale, with most of these programs only can serve 10 to 20 students at a time.

For nursing programs, it can be challenging to expand capacity while maintaining the low student-to-faculty ratios accreditors require, Rountree said. And at Michigan State, the mobile trailers can only accommodate a few students at a time.

But college officials say the success of these programs is encouraging them to expand. Valencia plans to open a 26,400-square-foot facility — its largest yet — in Orange County this August to increase the number of students from around 100 to 900 across all the centers. Michigan State officials hope to take additional trailers to community college partners, with some mobile units specializing in meat and dairy processing.

Rountree said it is mutually beneficial for colleges to figure out creative ways to bring hands-on education to students — wherever they are. “It’s really in the best interest of the community and in the best interests of the students that we serve to look at a different model that will be a win-win for employers and the community.” 

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