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Oklahoma City Community College Interview: Quick Path To Skilled Workforce Entry

By Jill Randolph
March 3, 2010

Oklahoma City Community College was established in 1972 and provides its students with broad access to certificates of mastery, associate degrees, community education, and cultural programs, empowering students to achieve their educational goals and helping the community to thrive in an increasingly global society.

Delores Jackson, Director of Corporate Learning, joined Oklahoma City Community College in August 2005. Ms. Jackson oversees Corporate Learning's planning, development and implementation of training programs and educational services for business and industry, government agencies, and non-profits in the community.

Ms. Jackson attended the University of Central Oklahoma where she received a Bachelor's degree in English and history. She later received her Masters in Business Administration from the University of Alabama.

Oklahoma City Community College offers certificate programs and associate's degrees, to help students quickly enter or re-enter the workforce. For example, OCCC's Wind Turbine Technician program can be completed in six classes and the Pharmacy Technician training program is only eight weeks and leads to in-demand job opportunities.

Interview Transcript

Jill Randolph: What are the biggest trends you are seeing among incoming students?

Delores Jackson: Here at Oklahoma City Community College, one of the biggest trends we have seen is the increase in student enrollment. We have been growing a small percentage every year, but this year we had close to a 20 percent increase. How many of them actually finish the semester is always the trick, but we have seen a huge increase in current enrollment.

The economy in Oklahoma has not followed the national trend - we are just starting to see some economic decline - so the increase in enrollment has been a bit of a surprise for us. The primary major here is still nursing; we have an excellent program with several different levels. One of them is a program in partnership with the University of Oklahoma, which allows students to earn a four-year degree in nursing by coming here.

Fewer people complete the program here than we would like because we are a transfer school, and the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Central Oklahoma are all within ten or twelve miles from most of our students, so many transfer to one of those schools to complete a BSN. Our next two most popular majors are liberal arts and business. These majors give students the opportunity to complete the first foundational classes at the community college level before transferring.

Jill Randolph: Are all of those majors offered at the associate's level?

"Students today are taking out more financial aid loans, which they had not taken advantage of before the economic crisis hit. We believe a lot of it was due to the fact students weren't aware that they qualified and thought the process was more complex than it is."

Delores Jackson: Yes. Our Nursing students, however, receive their four-year degree from the University of Oklahoma because we do not offer four-year degrees.

Jill Randolph: Are you seeing any other big trends with your students?

Delores Jackson: Students today are taking out more financial aid loans, which they had not taken advantage of before the economic crisis hit. We believe a lot of it was due to the fact students weren't aware that they qualified and thought the process was more complex than it is. In the last two or three years, we have made a concerted effort to help the student body understand that money is available for them, that they do qualify, and that applying for financial aid isn't difficult, which has helped them complete their student aid applications.

The third trend I am seeing among students is an increased interest in internships. From spring 2007 to spring 2009, there was a 12 percent increase in the number of students who completed an internship. The percentage of completed internships jumped from 34 to 46 percent in that two-year period.

Jill Randolph: Oklahoma City Community College also offers a Wind Turbine certificate program, is that correct?

Delores Jackson: Yes, in September of 2008, we started the first non-credit Wind Turbine Technician program in the state. We operate the program in partnership with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the partnership has been very successful for us. The IBEW has the electrical and electronic lab facilities for our students to use. The IBEW uses the same curriculum for their apprenticeship program, and it has been a really important partnership for us.

Our Wind Turbine Tech path is a one-year program. The first course is an introduction to the wind energy industry. There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what wind energy is and what its impact will be. Quite a few students are enrolled only in that course at this school. Some are landowners, and some are simply interested in learning more about wind energy.

The course teaches the fundamentals of wind energy and explains what a technician does, in addition to the direction the industry is moving. The course gives prospective students an idea of the work he or she will be doing, how much money they can earn in the field, and other similar facts. The other five classes in the program are technical. AC/DC Fundamentals is a required prerequisite, while other courses prepare students to work on Wind Turbines, either in installation, maintenance or repair. These courses include Industrial Electronics, Electro-mechanical Devices, Instrumentation and Control, and Programmable Controller.

When students complete all six courses, they receive a certificate of completion from Oklahoma City Community College. We also offer optional courses in areas like Safety Training, Hydraulics and Tower Rescue, a class that teaches students what to do when they are 300 feet in the air and there is a problem. Currently, employers have to hire people and provide training on their budget, but we are making the training available in addition to what is required for student certification.

We emphasize to students interested in the program that there are no wind farms in the Oklahoma City area, and there never will be in any larger city because of the interference with buildings, flyovers, and similar complications. However, 50 miles from here, many related jobs are available. We are very clear with our potential students, to help them understand that they won't find a job right here in Oklahoma City. We are filling a state and nationwide training need, but that need does not exist in the city.

Jobs that our Wind Turbine Tech students find are available in more rural areas, and some people are very reluctant to make the decision to leave Oklahoma City's boundaries. If they are not interested in relocating or commuting to the wind farms, then they should be trained instead for jobs that are available locally. That's a decision each individual student has to make, and we are here to help each one with whatever each person's educational choices may be.

"I personally have talked to students with degrees in journalism and business who cannot currently find work but are utilizing their degrees to find a long-term position that will pay well. The Wind Turbine Technician program offers that possibility, along with the Pharmacy Technician program, which offers a faster turnaround with an eight-week time investment here."

Jill Randolph: Considering the variety of degrees, certificate programs, and non-degree classes you offer, would you estimate your enrollment has increased over the 20 percent mark that your associate's programs have seen?

Delores Jackson: I don't think so, and there are two reasons for this. One is because non-credit students do not qualify for financial aid. We have a number of people on waiting lists, and every time we announce another class opening, we receive a lot of inquiries. When the inquirer learns that student financial aid is not available, that person tends not to be able to take the course.

To help those students, we have started a program evaluated for workforce investment, and we now have 8 students out of a class of 20 or 21 who are receiving workforce investment funds. That will help a lot, and we have also recently been approved for funding through the VA.

Jill Randolph: Workforce investment allows people who have been laid off to receive tuition reimbursement from the unemployment office, is that correct?

Delores Jackson: That's correct, and I don't believe that workforce investment funding is industry-specific. We recently had a major auto plant close, and for a while those funds were only available to people affected by that downsizing or another factory closing. Now, however, I think it's available to anyone who needs it, although there are different qualifications.

The students are completely responsible for checking into their possible qualification, however, as we do not provide any assistance for them other than the name of the contact person at the workforce investment board. We have been lucky to find a couple of representatives there who are very good at working with our students, and it's been beneficial to people who are interested in pursuing our Wind Turbine Technician program.

"Currently, students receive [Pharmacy Tech] training here and then work as either paid or unpaid employees in a pharmacy under the supervision of or directly with a pharmacist, who then recommends them for certifications through the state...Eight weeks and relatively low tuition get students not only a job that pays well, but also an opportunity to move on to pharmacy school if they are interested in that path."

Jill Randolph: Do you enroll a lot of students who are coming back to school in order to change careers after already having earned a degree in the past?

Delores Jackson: Yes, we do. I personally have talked to students with degrees in journalism and business who cannot currently find work but are utilizing their degrees to find a long-term position that will pay well. The Wind Turbine Technician program offers that possibility, along with the Pharmacy Technician program, which offers a faster turnaround with an eight-week time investment here.

We've received positive publicity for our Pharmacy Tech program recently. In the past, we only offered one session each semester, but we had a 40-person waitlist for students who wanted to get into the program before the end of the year, so we opened up more training sessions.

The state of Oklahoma currently does not require rigorous Pharmacy Tech training or licensing protocols, compared to surrounding states, so people may prefer our school to out-of-state programs. Completing our program helps students start working in the profession before the training requirements change.

Currently, students receive training here and then work as either paid or unpaid employees in a pharmacy under the supervision of or directly with a pharmacist, who then recommends them for certifications through the state. It's a relatively quick and easy process and it's been a good opportunity for a lot of people who are out of work and need a secure job very quickly. Eight weeks and relatively low tuition get students not only a job that pays well, but also an opportunity to move on to pharmacy school if they are interested in that path.

In fact, we had a number of pharmacy students take Pharmacy Tech classes because they wanted to learn what the technicians do and how that side of the pharmacy operates. The pharmacy students who took the Pharmacy Tech classes know what can realistically be expected of the Pharmacy Technicians, which will help the pharmacy students be better managers when they become full-fledged Pharmacists.

Jill Randolph: You mentioned that you have some students enrolled in your programs who already have their undergraduate degree. How do you recommend they tailor their résumé to their new field of interest, while also incorporating all the skills they learned in their previous career?

"We've had employers tell us that if they see LOL or a similar texting abbreviation in a student's résumé, they throw it out because it's clear that the student doesn't know the difference between professional communication and social chatter."

Delores Jackson: We offer a Résumé Writing course, which is one way to learn some of the most effective methods to help with that task. Also, in our office, students are given tips and instructions about what HR departments or potential employers are currently looking for in résumés. The work a student did five years ago is not necessarily what employers are looking for now.

For someone who has a business background but wants to work in a pharmacy-related position, I suggest that person really plays up his or her interest and knowledge about working in a pharmacy position. The focus should not be on the applicant's previous work background, but instead on what he or she has learned in school and how that applies to a pharmacy technician role.

Another tip, which we have also heard from various employers, both large and small, is that students are coming out of bachelor's programs without knowing how to write résumés or communicate professionally via email. As texting becomes more prevalent in students' day-to-day lives, they are transferring some of that language, or lack thereof, in résumés and other written communications.

We've had employers tell us that if they see LOL or a similar texting abbreviation in a student's résumé, they throw it out because it's clear that the student doesn't know the difference between professional communication and social chatter. Students' communications skills, particularly written, are a problem for employers, along with students' lack of critical-thinking skills. I don't know if this is the result of schools placing too much emphasis on standardized testing, or if various proper forms of communication are not emphasized as students go through various levels of education.

Jill Randolph: Does your Résumé Writing course also cover interviewing skills and workplace communications?

"We have seen people who have been laid off and were making $30 thousand a year driving a forklift and they think, 'The next job I get will be like the last one'. That isn't the case in Oklahoma or in this economy."

Delores Jackson: Yes, it does. We are seeing a lot of older students who had worked in one place for 18 or 20 years, then lost that position, and now are thrown into a job market they don't recognize. They haven't gone on an interview or had to present their skills in a résumé for many years, so that can be scary because it's brand-new territory.

There is also a bit of panic with these new job searchers, due to financial reasons. Our career service department offers several online programs, which are designed to help students write their résumé and improve their interviewing skills, in addition to the one-on-one help offered by our career services employees. I am not sure that these newly downsized people received instruction like this 20 years ago. We really try to help a lot of students here, but I am unsure how many of them take advantage of it.

We are also developing a program for Baby Boomers to prepare them for a second career, which can potentially lead to a more fulfilling retirement. The one thing we keep hearing from employers is that Boomers need basic computer skills, as some of the older students don't know how to do basic things like look for jobs on the Internet. In most cases, the services we provide to the Baby Boomers are very basic, because a lot of them lack what we now consider everyday skills.

Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things students should do to prepare to find a job after graduation?

Delores Jackson: I think an important thing is to maintain realistic expectations. We have seen people who have been laid off and were making $30 thousand a year driving a forklift and they think, "The next job I get will be like the last one". That isn't the case in Oklahoma or in this economy.

"During an interview, an interviewee needs to convince the prospective employer that the company will benefit by hiring him or her. A lot of applicants are very happy to talk about all the wonderful things they have accomplished, but they are unable to relate it to the needs of the position."

People have to dial down their expectations, and I think best way to do this is by educating oneself about the job market. Students need to look at the marketplace and see what's available. If they have to relocate to find work, they need to research the best cities for their career path and what the marketplace is like in that area, because no two cities are alike. Researching ahead of time and knowing what to anticipate can save people from a lot of disappointment.

Interview skills are also important, because if a person is offered a chance to meet an employer face-to-face, he or she has to know how to handle the questions and be confident enough to present his or her skills and experience professionally.

It is also important for students to present their experiences in a way that meets the expectations of the position. I have served on a couple of search committees recently, and I could tell some applicants didn't read the job description, simply by looking at their applications. There is nothing in their background, their experience or their education that remotely qualified them for the position.

On the other side of the coin, we also see people who look really good on paper, but who are unable to make the connection between what they have done and what the position requires. During an interview, an interviewee needs to convince the prospective employer that the company will benefit by hiring him or her. A lot of applicants are very happy to talk about all the wonderful things they have accomplished, but they are unable to relate it to the needs of the position.

Jill Randolph: What are some suggestions you offer students to help them stand out from other job applicants?

Delores Jackson: Applicants need to dress more appropriately, which is another thing we have heard from employers. I have also noticed this from serving on search committees as well. I am sad to say this, but it is usually the women who come in dressed either too casually or too provocatively. I didn't get the impression that any of these women thought showing their cleavage would give them a better chance of being hired for the job, but they sometimes come in dressed very unprofessionally.

Students should know how to present themselves professionally, which includes dressing appropriately and not wearing too much makeup or jewelry. For men, a tie never hurts, especially if it fits the position. I realize with the Millennial generation, that everything is a lot more casual, and perhaps the workplace will change to fit that mentality. Generally speaking, however, students need to dress like they are going on a job interview. I think that will set applicants apart in the face-to-face aspect of the job search process.

"If someone has a strong network and they receive good leads, that person won't necessarily be able to close one of the job leads. However, some positions aren't publicized, so I believe networking is the best way for people to find job leads."

As far as the written aspect of a job search goes, résumés need to be error free, with no misspelled words or punctuation errors. Applicants should use complete sentences so they appear qualified for the job. Much of the creative and artistic side of résumés has become obsolete due to online applications, and I think a well-written résumé will receive more attention than one that is gimmicky.

Jill Randolph: Do you think it's vital that students research a company before going on an interview?

Delores Jackson: Yes. Anything an applicant knows about the company or organization they will be interviewing with puts them in a much better position. If an employer can tell that the applicant has done his or her research, it reflects very positively on the applicant. The employer will be pleased to see that the interviewee is interested enough in the position to have taken the time to learn what the company is doing and how his or her skills can make a positive impact.

Jill Randolph: Recent statistics show a higher percentage of people are finding job leads through their network as opposed to traditional job search methods. Have you heard this as well?

Delores Jackson: I think it's probably situational. If someone has a strong network and they receive good leads, that person won't necessarily be able to close one of the job leads. However, some positions aren't publicized, so I believe networking is the best way for people to find job leads.

As far as employers are concerned, I am not sure a lot of them know how the applicant came to them. Several of our largest local employers use the same application process, which is online. There may be people in HR who can help an applicant move to the front of the line because they had a prior relationship with the applicant, so it never hurts, from the standpoint of either the employer or applicants, to have a good network. Networks can provide support for those looking for work and also for people who are not currently looking for a job.

Having experienced people to consult with for advice on how to approach situations is invaluable. The importance of a diverse network can't be overstated, because at any time it may help a person find the right job.

Jill Randolph: How has your school has changed from the past?

Delores Jackson: I have only been here four years, but I have seen a change. One of the biggest changes, which has occurred at most every school, is the move to online course offerings. It is the fastest growing portion of our curriculum, and it makes sense for community college students. So many work full-time, and to have the flexibility of attending class on their schedule is very helpful. I believe it's possible now to receive an AS in liberal studies without ever having attended an instructor-led class.

We also are seeing more and more of our faculty using Social Media as a way to connect with students. Instructors use Facebook as a way to share podcasts of their lectures so that class time is more interactive with the instructor. The lectures are available to students in an electronic format as well. This way, they can access past lectures and use them either in preparation for an exam or for review.

I think the use of new technology is the biggest change I have seen, along with the number of students enrolled here. It has made OCCC busier, both on campus and online. So far, we have been able to meet the demand of higher enrollments by adding class sections rather than making current classes larger. I think in some cases we have had to go up to 30-students per class, but that is not large, especially compared to universities.

Students can come to Oklahoma City Community College and earn a certificate or degree, online or in a small class with individual attention, and get into their desired career quickly.

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