Traverse City News and Events

Drones, Land Surveying, And Micro-Credentials: How NMC Is Looking Beyond Traditional Community College Programs To Broaden Its Reach

By Craig Manning | March 18, 2022

When Michigan State Police officers need to get trained on how to operate drones or underwater ROVs, they come to Traverse City. That’s thanks to a growing initiative at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) to broadening its offerings to include everything from industry partnerships to short-form credentialing programs. The strategy is making NMC an unexpected partner for a variety of organizations – and is putting Traverse City on the map in new ways.

In 2018, local businessman, investor, and philanthropist Casey Cowell mused to The Ticker about the potential for Traverse City to become “the greatest destination for experiential learning.” “If you wanted to learn to conduct an orchestra, learn how to draw or paint, learn how a microprocessor works, cook Asian food, weld aluminum, fly an airplane, fly drones…[you] could go to Traverse City for three days or a week or a month and learn this stuff,” Cowell said at the time.

In a way, NMC’s efforts to look beyond the traditional community college model are the realization of Cowell’s vision. Diana Fairbanks, the college’s associate vice president of public relations, marketing and communications, calls the concept “Portfolio B.” Where Portfolio A would encompass the typical community college programs and classes, Portfolio B is more niche-driven stuff – often geared toward industry partners that need specialized types of training for their employees.

“Years ago, we took a look at traditional community college trends,” Fairbanks explains. “With NMC being a transfer institution, we could look at the horizon and say, ‘Wait a minute, we have declining enrollments and the demographics are not going to be there [for our traditional programs]. We're going to need to find other ways to help balance the budget, while also tapping into some of these unique resources we have on the Great Lakes.’ The whole idea is to have some of these specialty programs that are different than your traditional community college focus, and they bring in people from other parts of the world.”

At the forefront of NMC’s innovative new approach is Jason Slade, named last fall as the college’s first-ever vice president for strategic initiatives. Previously the director of NMC’s technical division, Slade beat out a nationwide pool of more than 90 candidates to win the role. Per a press release from October, Slade’s new job tasks him with “charting the college’s future direction,” with focus areas including implementation of NMC’s new strategic plan, innovation management, revenue generation, and business partnerships.

“We have a couple of really distinct areas that we're focused in on [with the new strategic plan] and one of them is future-focused education,” Slade says of his new role. “That could mean shorter course offerings. It could mean bringing more classes into the online/hybrid environment. It could mean credits for prior learning, so that when you come in with some skill sets, we’re not making you start at an intro-level course. It could mean training for our industry partners, so those students can take that learning and directly apply it at industry. Really, what we’re trying to do is be more nimble.”

These “future-focused” strategies, Slade says, are allowing NMC to meet a wider range of needs than ever before, including the needs of employers. One example is the Michigan State Police partnership, where troopers come to NMC’s Aero Park Campus for training in how to use drones or underwater ROVs. Those technologies, Slade says, are used in law enforcement for everything from search-and-rescue missions to underwater body recoveries. NMC helps troopers learn the mechanics of the drones and ROVs, the basics of piloting and navigation, and the skills necessary to pass relevant licensing exams. 

Another major industry partner is Leica Geosystems, a leading manufacturer of surveying equipment and geographical measurement tools. Based in Switzerland but with a branch in Livonia, Leica provided NMC with “three-quarters of a million dollars” of industry-standard equipment in an effort to address a workforce shortage in the surveying industry. “We were able to work with some of our local, regional, and even statewide surveying companies to design a program that met their needs,” Slade says.

Of course, most of NMC’s industry partnerships are local. Those include connections with the Grand Traverse Area Manufacturer’s Council and the Build Your Life initiative, which work closely with NMC to build local talent pipelines for trades like manufacturing, engineering, and construction. With those partnerships, Slade says the goal isn’t always to get students into full associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs – at least not right away. “[Our partners] are really pushing us by asking, ‘What are some of those skill sets and industry certifications that we can help students earn quickly?’”

That exploration is leading to another new frontier for NMC: the “micro-credential.” Slade describes the concept as “a series of short courses to deliver a skill set and not make [the student] wait. We try to look at what skills industry is looking for right now, and how we can package those classes in such a way that we can get a learner through quickly.”

The idea isn’t to replace more comprehensive learning. While micro-credentials are meant for students that need specific skills to go to work right away, Slade says they’re also foundations students can build on over time if they choose to pursue full certificates or degrees.

So far, NMC is offering micro-credentials for competencies like electrical systems, PLC applications, machining fundamentals, industrial maintenance, and drone operations. Since the concept is new, though, Slade is confident opportunities will only expand in the future as industry needs demand.

“Early in the pandemic, we said, ‘You know what? This is our chance to really look at what industry is requesting, and at what those trend lines will be,’” Slade explains. “I think there’s some perception out there that colleges are not nimble, or that we’re very set in our ways. As in, ‘This is the platform, and this is how the program is always going to be.’ But that doesn’t need to be true. We can adjust based on what the needs are, and especially if we look at our skilled trades or technical areas, we can pivot really quickly.”

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