A 2019 state economic report found that a steel-industry technology associate degree from ANC produced graduates whose first-year, full-time wages exceeded the average annual salary of every bachelor’s degree program in Arkansas. Dr. James Shemwell takes pride in the opportunities his school affords students from the state’s northeast corner, including many students from Missouri’s bootheel.
ANC students go on to become doctors and lawyers in addition to industry managers and skilled workers, he said. Another source of pride — in 1977, the school then known as Mississippi County Community College, was awarded a $6.3 million federal grant to build the nation’s first solar photovoltaic prototype facility.
AMP: How has the pandemic impacted ANC’s mission?
Dr. Shemwell: Although the COVID-19 pandemic forced changes in how ANC fulfills its mission, it also triggered innovations in educational delivery that will long survive the pandemic. Integrating telecommunication applications such as Zoom married face-to-face instruction with remote delivery to create a real-time virtual classroom experience. This affords students most of the advantages of face-to-face instruction, such as visual and auditory learning techniques, without having to be physically present in a particular location.
Forced to rethink how education is delivered, we already have begun working toward the next progression, namely, marrying real-time instruction with asynchronous learning in the same class. In other words, melding the currently separate structures for face-to-face instruction versus online instruction into one seamless structure that allows for students to participate in lectures and class assignments in real time, either in person or by Zoom, or on their own time online within each week’s schedule, and to alternate between these methods throughout the semester.
While this approach will not apply completely to classes in every program due to professional licensure requirements, such as certain health care fields or the necessity of hands-on application such as welding or aviation maintenance, this virtual classroom approach has some degree of application for all programs at Arkansas Northeastern College.
AMP: Did 2020 accelerate the need for workforce development and alternatives to the traditional college route?
Dr. Shemwell: Even during the economic boom over the past few years, millions of Americans with bachelor’s degrees remained unemployed or in low-skill jobs because far too many students major in fields with little value in the labor market.
For instance, wages for social science careers are very modest because there are far more people with this type of knowledge than there are jobs that require such knowledge. Meanwhile, well-paying jobs requiring math or technical proficiencies remain unfilled because too few students pursue education and skill training in these high-demand fields.
The pandemic may actually end up having a positive effect in terms of reversing this skills gap. Because social life and athletic events at universities have been largely curtailed or sterilized as a result of COVID-19, potential students and parents of potential students are more directly confronted with the real reason that the overwhelming majority of people attend college, namely, to prepare for a career after college. This realization is causing potential students to consider other options to “university life” with a greater focus on career goals.
Community colleges offer a variety of programs requiring two years or less of studies, which lead to well-paying careers in health care, advanced manufacturing, welding and much more.
AMP: Even without a global pandemic forcing a re-examination of how things are done, were more students bound to be drawn to the high ROI afforded by specialized skills training?
Dr. Shemwell: Technology and easy access to information have ushered in an era of customization. People can custom-order products from around the world as well as services tailored to a customer’s exact wants. It stands to reason that employers also seek customization in desiring new employees who possess the specific skill sets required for specific jobs.
The ability to demonstrate skill sets — through professional certifications, for example — has much more value to employers today than do diplomas in generic fields of study. Students graduating high school are slowly but surely starting to realize that the quickest way to a lucrative career is not through the marking of four years on a calendar but, instead, by mastering in-demand skill sets in a fraction of the time and cost. The more that this trend continues, the better that the American economy will prosper.