Learn and Earn

More schools are partnering with the private sector to develop courses and apprenticeship programs

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WARWICK, R.I. — Angel Gavidia worked as a construction worker, an auto detailer and a taxi dispatcher before he found his calling as a computer-networking engineer, a high-paying job that employers have had trouble filling even at a time of high unemployment.

Gavidia, 26, says that community-college advisors had initially steered him into a general engineering course, which was of so little interest to him that he quit school after less than a year. Then Gavidia heard from a classmate about a program jointly developed by the Community College of Rhode Island and IT-services company called Atrion to help students get both a classroom education and on-the-job training. The year-long program, in which Gavidia was paid to work as an apprentice at Atrion while taking on-campus courses in networking and other IT subjects, gave him the kind of real-world skills employers say they want but often can’t find in college graduates.

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Gavidia, who now works full-time at Atrion as an associate engineer, says it was the apprenticeship part of the program that taught him not just theoretical knowledge, but skills he could actually use on the job. “I came into this position feeling like, we didn’t learn this in school, and we should have,” he said.

Before Atrion approached the college and helped launch the program in 2009, the company’s talent recruiter, Patrick Halpin, said, it was “very difficult to find the right combination of skills and talent, and frankly it was often at a cost.” Atrion found itself having to spend more and more money on the frustrating hunt for qualified candidates.

Collaborations like the one Atrion forged in Rhode Island are broadly referred to as “learn and earn” programs, which combine academic courses and work experience to lead to a specific job, and they’re slowly becoming more common as the two camps try to stop bickering and start filling the skills gap.

Business officials have long complained that too many college students aren’t learning what they need to get jobs. Many academics, particularly at four-year institutions, have maintained that what undergraduates really need isn’t job-specific preparation, but the ability to think critically that comes from a well-rounded education.

“There’s been something of a rupture,” said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. “On the higher-education side, we have sometimes not thought enough about how best to prepare our students for the jobs that will be available when they graduate. And employers haven’t always communicated clearly enough to universities what skills employees need.”

It’s not for lack of prodding.

“I hear from business leaders all the time who want to hire in the United States, but at the moment, they cannot always find workers with the right skills,” President Barack Obama told an audience at a community college in Virginia in February. “Companies looking to hire should be able to count on these schools to provide them with a steady stream of workers qualified to fill those specific jobs.”

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