Waubonsee looking to offer college credit for skills learned on the job

Waubonsee Community College in downtown Aurora. |  File photo
Waubonsee Community College in downtown Aurora. | File photo

Electricians, carpenters, plumbers and other trade workers who’ve participated in approved apprenticeship programs soon will be able to obtain credit for their on-the-job training at Waubonsee Community College as part of a new federal initiative.

Last month, Waubonsee joined a network of colleges, employers and labor groups that is working to make it easier for skilled trade workers to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Waubonsee plans to launch a new degree program next fall that could let workers who’ve gone through rigorous apprenticeship programs earn up to 45 college credits — the equivalent of three full-time semesters.

Though the specifics of the degree still have to be worked out by Waubonsee faculty and approved by the state’s community college board, college officials hope that these students would have to take only five classes to earn the new associate’s degree.

“We’re truly trying to recognize that learning happens outside the classroom,” said Suzette Murray, Waubonsee’s assistant vice president for career and technical education.

In the past, colleges made individual agreements with apprenticeship programs to offer credits. For at least the last decade, Waubonsee has offered credit toward an associate’s degree for on-the-job training to only one group — union electrical workers.

The federal initiative is prompting Waubonsee and other colleges to offer a clearer degree pathway to potential students who have extensive training.

“Right now if someone came to us and said ‘I’m an unemployed plumber what can you do for me?’ The answer is pretty much nothing,” Murray said. “This is a way to encourage people who’ve never considered a college degree to consider it.”

Vice President Joe Biden announced the joint initiative overseen by the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor in April. Federal leaders hope by improving the link between apprenticeship programs and college degree programs they can increase college graduation rates, reduce student debt loads and help workers become more competitive in the job market.

Murray said in addition to those benefits, this new associate’s degree will help workers round out their technical knowledge with general education courses — which can be taken online — and provide them with some flexibility to pursue jobs with employers who require or prefer higher education credentials. The degree also could give trade workers a way to pursue management roles later, she said.

The degree would be spelled out in the college’s course catalogue next year and school counselors would meet with workers to see how many credits could transfer.

An apprentice is a paid worker who receives special training, often through a union or labor group. The most popular apprenticeships across the country are those for electricians, carpenters and plumbers, but there are more than 1,100 occupations that are listed in the federal registry of approved apprenticeships.

Last year, there were more than 13,000 workers in around 550 apprenticeship programs across Illinois, according to federal data. According to a 2010 industry guide, there are at least 28 types of construction-related apprenticeships offered in Northeast Illinois, an area that includes Kane, Kendall and DuPage counties.

Waubonsee also is looking to offer credit for professional certifications and job skills learned during military service.

One challenge of offering credit for skills learned on the job is figuring how much credit to give. There are two models for doing the conversion: taking into account how many hours the worker spent training or what skills he or she mastered during that time.

According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, a majority of apprentices work in construction-related trades and most apprenticeship programs last three to five years — which usually stacks up to 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and 144 hours of classroom instruction.

But programs can vary widely, Murray said. For that reason, her staff has spent time calling unions in the six-county area to compile a database about their apprenticeship programs and how long they last.

Waubonsee also is looking to how other states, such as Indiana, have doled out credit for learning done on the job.

Over the next few months, Murray will assemble a committee that includes union representatives and Waubonsee staff to come up with a solution. She hopes the college will take skills mastered into careful consideration.

“We’re trying to be entrepreneurial and think outside the box… without going too crazy,” Murray said. “I want the faculty to be assured that we’re giving out a degree for rigorous study.”

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3 Comments

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    […] Waubonsee looking to offer college credit for skills learned on the job The degree also could give trade workers a way to pursue management roles later, she said. The degree would be spelled out in the college's course catalogue next year and school counselors would meet with workers to see how many credits could transfer. Read more on Aurora Beacon News […]

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    […] Waubonsee looking to offer college credit for skills learned on the job Murray said in addition to those benefits, this new associate's degree will help workers round out their technical knowledge with general education courses — which can be taken online — and provide them with some flexibility to pursue jobs with … Read more on Aurora Beacon News […]

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