Accelerated Programmer Training Program: Building an IT Talent Pipeline by Breaking Barriers
In October 2012, Austin Community College District (ACC) was awarded a four-year, $2.1 million TAACCCT grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to assist students with the removal of barriers to degree completion and acquisition of entry-level positions in the field of information technology (IT). With grant funds, the college designed a new online competency-based education (CBE) program—Accelerated Programmer Training (APT). The initiative improved distance learning curriculum and delivery, which, in turn, increased student enrollment and graduation rates, and, ultimately, amplified job placements in the IT field.
Addressing an Industry Need
In February 2020, The Wall Street Journal ranked Austin, Texas, as having the hottest job market in the U.S. (Oh, 2020). Much of this growth is attributed to Austin’s evolution into a major high-tech hub, with over 7,200 high-tech employers in the metro area providing 15.8 percent of all jobs in the city, compared to the national average of 8.75 percent (Cobler, 2019). In addition, the Austin American-Statesman reported that jobs in Austin’s high-tech sector grew by 6.6 percent in 2018, surpassing the city’s 3.6 percent total job growth (Cobler, 2019).
While high-tech growth continues to offer substantial opportunities, major firms such as Apple, Cisco, Dell, IBM, National Instruments, and Visa still struggle to find IT talent for jobs with salaries averaging $118,700, well above the city’s average annual salary of $62,300 (Kerr, 2019). As ACC serves more than 40,000 students, high-tech employers naturally look to the college to provide a pipeline of entry-level employees. However, in order to meet employer demand, the college needed to address barriers facing its nontraditional student population.
First, it was essential for the college to recognize the heavy load of responsibilities the typical ACC student carries, including work and family obligations. These commitments have typically resulted in IT students taking, on average, one 16-week class per semester. In addition, some students turn to online courses, citing convenience and flexibility as a priority. However, the success rate for distance learning is 10-12 percent lower, while the withdrawal rate is substantially higher, than that of students in a traditional classroom. Frustrated with the challenges to degree completion, students often drop out or turn to alternative, often costly, for-profit platforms to obtain skills. As a result, the Computer Science and Information Technology (CSIT) department performed a self-assessment with a critical eye on recruitment, retention, success and completion rates, and internship placements, with the ultimate goal of providing Austin’s high-tech industry with a highly qualified entry-level talent pool.
Once the assessment was completed, the CSIT department designed, built, piloted, and institutionalized the online CBE Accelerated Programmer Training program. The program transitions students away from seat time, offering more flexibility, organization, and engagement. The APT strategic plan had six key components—CBE, student support/advising, faculty support, career services support/coaching, industry and community partners, and cost-effective delivery—and an enhanced online curriculum was developed to meet students’ needs.
CBE disrupts traditional learning by allowing students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency. The APT program provides students with personalized learning opportunities and the flexibility to earn credit in a manner that fits their busy lifestyles. The time to complete a course is based on a student’s ability to master competencies, rather than a traditional 16-week course schedule. As courses have rolling start and end dates, students can begin their next class in as few as four weeks rather than wait for a new semester to start.
Faculty worked with industry not only to revamp curriculum, but also to redesign 41 IT courses into distance learning CBE options. Each course includes five to ten highly organized competencies with pre-assessments, post-assessments, and enhanced student engagement employing synchronous and nonsynchronous learning. Students who successfully pass the pre-assessment proceed to the post-assessment, allowing them to accelerate to the next competency. While students can move ahead quickly if desired, they are monitored by a faculty member as well as a Student Support Specialist to ensure syllabus deadlines are met. “The program allows qualified students to get through their education and into the workforce more quickly,” stated Brian Clement of FSG Energy, an Austin-based enterprise energy management firm that employs programmers.
Finally, the courses are built into stackable credentials—from a four-course occupational skills award to a certificate to a degree. APT currently offers students a choice of two occupational skills awards, seven certificates, and five Associate of Applied Science degrees; a Bachelor of Applied Science in software development is scheduled to launch in fall 2020. The college’s decision to utilize a distance learning CBE format has enabled students to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and abilities and to accelerate through the program. As the APT program has grown, retention and success rates have also accelerated.
During program creation, it became clear that students needed ongoing one-on-one support and post-graduation guidance. A dedicated Student Support Specialist was hired to provide motivation, answer questions, and guide students from entrance to graduation. Tutors were embedded within the online and campus environments to provide additional support. As students progressed toward degree completion, those preparing for an internship with employer partners received assistance with writing résumés and practicing job interview skills at no cost. Finally, program information has been made available via a website. Providing wraparound services has increased persistence, completion, and employment outcomes with career trajectories.
As course format and curriculum transformed, additional support and guidance for faculty was crucial. Conversion from a 16-week lecture format into a distance learning CBE format was not only a cultural shift for faculty, but also a paradigm shift for the college. Faculty members were trained by personnel from Western Governors University in a series of four day-long workshops on the premise of CBE and how to build and operationalize CBE coursework. To further assist faculty, the APT program hired an instructional designer nationally known for her CBE research and course development. A Blackboard template was implemented by faculty to support faculty-student communication and a multimedia specialist was hired to build video and animated PowerPoints into each course. Finally, each course was peer reviewed once a month and later assessed by Quality Matters for final approval.
Industry and Community Partners
To ensure that skills taught at ACC matched industry requirements, an Industry Review Panel comprised of representatives from leading technology firms guided identification and inclusion of the needed competencies that would, in turn, become course curricula. Participants included Austin Energy, Cisco, Dell, FSG Energy, Home Depot, National Instruments, Texas Veterans Commission, Workforce Solutions, Austin and Round Rock Chambers of Commerce, Travis County, and the City of Austin. This collaboration ensured that graduates had the specific skills desired by local employers.
Enhanced Career Services
The APT program provides numerous opportunities for students to become better prepared for entry into the workforce. Student services offered through the offices of Career Services and Experiential Learning include expanded access to internships aligned with credentials, help with job searches and resume writing, use of hiring platforms, and mock interviews. Students are also encouraged to create online portfolios highlighting their competencies and interests for employer review.
Through internships, students gain hands-on experience, enhance hard and soft skills, and expand employment options while building valuable industry relationships. Many internships have led to full-time employment upon graduation. Making students aware of employment opportunities through ACC’s employer partners has motivated students to persist and complete degrees and certificates. Recruiting Specialist Eva Wermer of National Instruments noted, “Since the creation of the Austin Community College Accelerated Programmer Training, the college has offered us innovative and efficient ways of finding interns as well as skilled staff, some of whom we have hired as permanent staff.”
ACC strives to provide students with a cost-effective, high-quality education. Tuition costs average 80 percent less than private colleges and universities in Central Texas; classes in the APT program cost the same per credit as other classes (currently $67 per credit hour for in-district residents). An APT student can expect to spend approximately $5,100 (including in-district fees and books) to obtain a two-year degree of 60 credit hours. Efforts are being made to convert textbooks to open educational resources (OER) wherever possible to further reduce cost. In comparison, a 12-week programming course at a for-profit institution can cost thousands of dollars more and require mandatory daily attendance.
From 2013 to 2019, CSIT awards, including degrees, certificates, and occupational skills awards, have increased from 106 to 713 (Austin Community College District, 2019). The A.A.S. and A.S. degrees conferred increased from 83 in 2013 to 235 in 2019 (Austin Community College District, 2019). In addition, approximately 1,400 occupational skills awards have been awarded since the APT program’s inception in 2015. In addition, since 2013, the rate of students receiving As, Bs, and Cs in CSIT courses has increased from 58.8 percent to 63.4 percent, while the withdrawal rate has dropped from 25.6 percent to 20.2 percent (Austin Community College District, n.d.).
In 2016, ACC added the Women in Information Technology (WIT) program to APT options with grant funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The WIT core team designed a tailored program to increase the number of female students in computer science and information technology, and to bolster academic and career success. Based on the fact that “upwards of 75 percent of all caregivers are female,” and that “female caregivers may spend as much as 50 percent more time providing care than males” (Institute on Aging, n.d.), online classes accommodate caregiver schedules. In addition, the program offers women peer support and core competency skill sets to enhance their chances of success.
The WIT program has met with substantial success. Due in large part to the online availability of courses from the APT program and the additional services provided by WIT, 27.3 percent of IT program graduates at ACC were female, compared to the most recent national data from IPEDS of 19.8 percent (Austin Community College District, n.d.). Furthermore, the success rate (i.e., grades of A, B, or C) of women at ACC rose from 58.8 percent in 2013 to 63.4 percent in 2019 (Austin Community College District, n.d.). Finally, the withdrawal rate of women in CSIT decreased from 25.6 percent in 2013 to 20.2 percent in 2019 (Austin Community College District, n.d.).
Since 2015, ACC has secured Perkins State Leadership grants from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) with the primary goal of expanding CBE across Texas through mentoring, workshops, and case studies. From 2017-2019, the grant funded three two-day conferences devoted entirely to CBE; Amardeep Kahlon and Ann Kennedy from ACC hosted the fourth annual event—Fast Track to Success Conference—in June 2020 utilizing an innovative online platform designed and managed by D2L. Five hundred and eighty-eight people—50 percent from Texas and the rest from other U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, and Belize—registered for the 2020 conference.
ACC also participated in a Texas Affordable Baccalaureate grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which funded the development of seven core courses into online CBE delivery: English Composition, Technical Writing, Economics, Student Success, Speech, Introduction to Sociology, and U.S. Government. Due to this work, ACC now offers its first two-year online CBE degree in computer programming. The A.A.S. fully articulates to South Texas College, allowing a student to complete a distance learning/CBE Bachelor of Applied Technology in computer information technology. Finally, the APT program was awarded a THECB STAR Award in 2017 and a League for Innovation in the Community College Innovation of the Year Award in 2018.
ACC is now targeting the next generation of CBE by embracing a holistic approach to digital fluency skills. The digital fluency skills platform will provide students with high-demand digital workforce competencies offered in a hybrid, CBE, adaptive, and personalized format, utilizing OER. The new platform is targeted not only to amplify digital skills, but ultimately, to enhance career trajectories of priority populations facing barriers.
Austin Community College District. (n.d.). TIPS - the informational portal system: Success rates for computer information technology 2014 to 2019.
Austin Community College District. (2019, Fall). Fact book preview: Computer science and information technology, academic years 2015 to 2019.
Cobler, N. (2019, August 7). Report: In 2018, Austin grew tech jobs twice as fast as other jobs. Austin American Statesman. Retrieved from www.statesman.com/news/20190807/report-in-2018-austin-grew-tech-jobs-twice-as-fast-as-other-jobs
Institute on Aging. (n.d.). Our mission & history. Retrieved from www.ioaging.org/aging-in-america
Kerr, B. (2019, August 6). High Tech Industry. Austin Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved from www.austinchamber.com/blog/08-06-2019-high-tech-industry
Oh, S. (2020, February 24). Austin, Nashville rank at top of hottest U.S. job markets. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from www.wsj.com/articles/austin-nashville-rank-at-top-of-hottest-u-s-job-markets-11582545600
Linda Smarzik is Dean, Computer Science and Information Technology, at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.