Monday, April 07, 2014

AACC Day Two: Bidens and By-The-Ways

After the bitter shot of espresso that was the first day of AACC, I decided to split the second day between the official conference and the unofficial one.  

Academic conferences run parallel programs.  The official program is what gets printed in the, well, program: panels, plenaries, and the like.  The unofficial one is the people you bump into during the day.  When the official program gets a little same-y, stuffy, or bitter, the unofficial one can redeem it.  So a bit of each.

The official highlight, which I made sure to attend, was Vice President Biden’s speech.  Jill Biden introduced him, speaking as both the “second lady” (not sure about that title…) and a community college professor.  Joe introduced himself as Jill’s husband, which fit the room nicely.  He praised community colleges as the best route into the middle class in a time when the “aperture” into the middle class is shrinking.  

The centerpiece of his talk was a new federal program to encourage, coordinate, and possibly help fund apprenticeship programs between employers and community colleges.  (Unions were conspicuous by their absence in his speech.)  Biden noted, correctly, that certain skilled trades have long used apprenticeships to train incoming workers, and that new trainees in those fields can make pretty good salaries when they graduate.  Even better, they get paid while they’re learning, so the opportunity cost is greatly reduced, compared to traditional higher education.

He proposed taking the apprenticeship model beyond construction and related fields (pipefitting, plumbing, etc.), and into fields like allied health and IT.  He didn’t go into much detail as to how that might work, and it wasn’t immediately obvious to me.  Allied health fields are already pretty well-defined with ranks and roles, and it’s already possible to move up the ranks through well-designed stackable programs.  (Holyoke’s Foundations of Health program is built on that insight, and it’s conspicuously successful.)  They don’t use the word “apprenticeship,” but the basic idea is already sort of there.

But I honestly don’t see how the apprenticeship model would work in IT.  Apprenticeships work well when the craft takes time to learn, the roles are well-defined, and the field is structurally stable.  Pipefitting is like that; moving water from here to there is still essentially the same process it was a generation ago.  Apprenticeships also generally happen in unionized industries.  Construction tends to be heavily unionized, so it lends itself well.

IT doesn’t fit either bill.  The content of the field changes rapidly, and its structure is in constant flux.  It’s relatively indifferent to credentials -- in part because the field is in such flux -- and it’s not exactly a hotbed of unionization.  IT has adopted the internship model much more than the apprenticeship model, both because interns are cheaper and because the industry doesn’t rely on clearly defined roles.  The field is rife with startups, which are notoriously averse to the kind of rankings that apprenticeships presume.

Still, any time the executive branch of the federal government wants to give community colleges a high-five, I’m all for it.  And even when he’s a little subdued, as he was here, Biden is always fun to watch.  As well-spoken as he can be, his internal editor isn’t always up to the task, which makes him seem more authentic and makes watching him sort of suspenseful.

On the way to see Biden, though, we had to stand in a preposterously long line for a security screening similar to what the TSA does.  (My colleague Alana Wiens tweeted the line of the day: “It’s like loading the ark in here.  People are coming in two by two.”)  The woman ahead of me in line struck up a conversation with me to pass the time.  She turned out to be Laura Meeks, the president of Eastern Gateway Community College.  But more to the point, I’m convinced that she’s my Mom’s long-lost sister.  We spent a solid hour discussing Swedish family Christmas traditions, among other things.  When you find someone who has endured the lutefisk, you have to share.

On the other extreme, I attended a fascinating panel on campus crisis communications.  The president and the public relations person from Carl Sandburg Community College in Illinois discussed how they handled public disclosures when their campus flooded last Spring.  The short version: get it all out there quickly, and offer the press structured opportunities (press conferences) to get what it needs at manageable intervals, so you don’t spend all day answering individual queries.  The presentation was vivid, practical, thoughtful, important, and attended by maybe a dozen people.  Makes ya wonder.

On the unofficial side, though, all was lovely.  I reconnected with friend and rising star Jessica Chambers, who is now the chief student affairs officer at Hagerstown Community College in Maryland, and got to introduce her to established superstar Kay McClenney.  Gretchen McKay flagged me down to tell me about a historical game project she’s using to get and keep students interested, and to figure out how to make it useful in a community college context.  Jee Hang Lee and Bryce McKibben, from ACCT, introduced themselves and had the first of what I hope will be more discussions.  And I finally made the trek to the New America Foundation offices, where I was able to meet in person Kevin Carey, Rachel Fishman, and Amy Laitinen, among others.  (Possible essay question: The New America Foundation is neither new, nor a foundation.  Discuss.)  Webinars and online interactions are all great, but some things require actually seeing people in three dimensions.

On to day three.  My HCC colleagues’ panel, “Changing the Game,”  was bumped by Biden to 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, so I’ll be there for moral support.  Learn how to make grants work together!  Improve student outcomes in allied health fields!  Watch me try to look awake at 7:30 in the morning!  

I promise not to bring lutefisk.