The Research Triangle Park

Partner Profile: Q and A with Durham Tech

By Oct 13, 2014

This post is part of the series Partner Profiles, where US2020 shares the story of how our nonprofit, corporate, school, and university partners are contributing to a STEM education community of practice. I sat down with Carver Weaver, the Director of Marketing and Communications at Durham Technical Community College, to talk about their partnership with US2020.

US2020 offers STEM mentoring opportunities from kindergarten up through college. Why do you feel that STEM mentoring for community college students is so important?

Many of our students are the first person in their families to pursue higher education. In many cases they come from blue-collar, rural, or agricultural backgrounds, that’s especially true for our Hispanic and Latino populations. For many of our students, simply even earning a high school diploma is a big achievement. So they’re not necessarily coming from a background that stresses education in STEM careers. They might not know about the types of jobs that are out there and the skills that are necessary to perform well in those jobs. I think there’s an assumption that STEM jobs all require advanced degrees, and that’s not necessarily the case. So mentors can show students many of the options along the STEM career path.

How do you think community colleges can fast track students into STEM careers, especially careers that don’t involve an advanced degree?

Durham Tech offers many certification programs that don’t necessarily require a diploma or an advanced degree. For example, we have electrical engineering certificates that can be completed in two years and that give someone workforce-ready skills. Even if students opt out of a broad liberal arts education, they are prepared to go out and seek a job that will pay a family-supporting wage.

What do you think students at Durham Tech that are studying STEM subjects need to be successful?

We find that our students not only need the technical information that goes on in the classroom, but also two other key elements. One is that we ask them to take a human resources development course, since many do not have experience working in a traditional business environment or lab. Second, we’ve gotten funding from companies such as Longfellow Real Estate Partners and Wells Fargo to offer work-study stipends for students, which has been really popular. More than half of our students have to hold down a job in addition to going to school, which can slow their academic progression. If we can pay them to work in a lab or in an office so they can acquire relevant job skills, they are able to replace the money they would have been earning at Target or McDonalds. Plus, this work experience has the added benefit of making them much more attractive to a future employer.

What kinds of hands-on STEM projects do you think college-aged students are interested in?

I think they don’t know what they don’t know. When they think of manufacturing, they think of the traditional type of pack-and-fill manufacturing, but manufacturing these days is a very high-tech, high-skilled career path that requires some engineering. Even traditional blue-collar jobs like auto repair now require specialized skills. We’ve just begun a program that trains students to work on hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles, as well as light rail trains. So instead of thinking of grease monkeys under the hood, students need to revise their assumptions to reflect the new reality: if you are working on a new car, you’re now an electrical engineer because you’re dealing with an electrical system, not a fuel-powered system. Or consider a company like Cree. True, Cree manufactures light bulbs, but the process has changed dramatically for LED lighting. I don’t think students have any idea of the skills that are needed to work in a job like that. That’s where the mentoring part is just priceless.

When you’re making mentoring opportunities, is there a specific type of STEM professional that you think would be more helpful than others?

Durham Tech has traditionally focused a lot on life sciences. We have a very strong clinical research trials associate program with a virtually 100 percent hire rate. Other careers we train for include nursing, medical coding, and phlebotomy –  all programs that are very important in life sciences. Longfellow Real Estate Partners is building life sciences incubators in downtown Durham that will foster and accelerate the development of pharmaceutical and medical products and services. So having those types of professionals mentor our students would be great. The Triangle also has a growing industry cluster in agriculture, including BASF, Bayer, and Monsanto, so adding ag-bio to that skillset would be very attractive, especially since all those companies are hiring.

What advice would you give STEM professionals that are mentoring community college students?

I think I would say “be real.” These students may come from tough neighborhoods and have had to deal with life circumstances unlike anything the mentor may have experienced. It’s important to speak to the students at their level, and offer encouragement and support, instead of running the risk of making them feel as if they are not smart enough or good enough to succeed.

Is there anything else you want to add about your relationship with US2020?

I really think this is a great program because it has the power and the leadership behind it to pull this off. I know this is a model that is scalable. I also know that in many cases we’re focusing on an underserved population. Programs like this are essential to growing a local workforce organically, otherwise people will move in from out of state to take the jobs that our current residents aren’t trained to do. Programs like US2020 are essential to supplementing the classroom experience with some real-world working knowledge of the industry.