As the IT skills gap widens, major employers have begun looking beyond four-year universities for trained IT professionals. IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco—some of the world’s biggest technology brands have recently made headlines for recruitment programs aimed at attracting talent from community colleges.
And it’s no surprise, because there’s no better place to find candidates with hands-on skills and training in the latest technologies. Yet, community colleges face numerous challenges in delivering this training, from funding equipment to maintaining and upgrading it with limited resources.
We recently interviewed Richard Grotegut, ICT Deputy Sector Navigator at the Bay Area Community College Consortium (BACCC), to find out how the community colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area are using NETLAB+ to overcome these challenges and prepare students for careers in the IT industry.
“It was a no-brainer to use NETLAB+,” Grotegut explains. “As an instructor, preparing a lab activity, creating it, delivering it, and maintaining it is a lot of work. NETLAB+ gives us hundreds of labs that have already been produced and are available for instructors to use. So having something readily available that teaches the desired outcomes is like a teacher’s best friend. That’s one of the great advantages of NETLAB+.”
NETLAB+ comes with over 600 proven IT labs developed in partnership with leading vendors and aligned to industry certifications. This makes it easy for programs to offer and deploy a wide range of curriculum covering today’s most in-demand technologies.
With NETLAB+, users are able to access IT labs 24/7, from anywhere with an internet connection. Program administrators appreciate this capability because it dramatically increases the utilization and ROI of their IT infrastructure. And students love it because it makes it easier to fit labs into their busy schedules.
A Regional Solution to the IT Training Challenge
In 2015, six of the 24 BACCC community colleges joined forces to apply for a State of California grant to transfer all of their IT lab equipment to a centralized data center at Cabrillo College.
“Before then, each of the Bay Area community colleges had to support their own IT program and labs,” Grotegut recalls. “And we all struggled to fund, build and manage lab facilities that could provide the kind of hands-on training our students needed. We got an opportunity in 2015 to apply for a grant that would allow us to consolidate our lab equipment into a single, centralized data center—and then use NETLAB+ to deliver our labs in the cloud.”
“I worked with Gerlinde Brady, who is now the CTE Dean at Cabrillo College, to put a proposal together. We asked for almost a million dollars to purchase additional equipment and relocate existing equipment from six different schools to Cabrillo College. And we had another eight schools that didn’t have NETLAB+ but wanted to use it. So there was a lot of regional support, and the proposal got approved.”
Big Savings, Bigger Benefits
“The savings to the region have been pretty significant,” Grotegut notes. He estimates that collectively it would have cost the Bay Area community colleges $3.6M to build similar IT lab facilities, and much more to manage them.
With the consolidated facility, BACCC was able to hire a full-time data center administrator, which enables instructors to focus on teaching rather than maintaining and upgrading infrastructure. And with NETLAB+, there’s so much more content available for them to teach.
Bay Area community colleges aren’t the only ones benefiting from the new IT lab facilities. BACCC has occasionally provided access to colleges in other parts of California and local high schools. BACCC also supports the local Cyber Patriot program, which enables high school students to develop and test their cybersecurity skills.
“Just teaching cybersecurity requires a topology that would be difficult to set up locally,” explains Grotegut. “Students who go through these labs have access to seven or eight computers that are networked together, and then can apply their knowledge and skills working on that topology. They wouldn’t be able to do that working in a physical lab.”
Closing the Skills Gap
“The problem with industry is that 70% of the jobs—at least when you look at the job boards—require a bachelor’s degree. Even though it’s really the skills they’re interested in,” he observes.
“What we’re trying to do is to get employers to recognize community colleges as a resource for the skilled technicians and employees they need. Because often they don’t look here. They look at university programs. But if you talk to community college instructors, you’ll hear a common story: We get so many students who have graduated from university and have their bachelor’s degree in MIS or Computer Science, yet they can’t find jobs because they don’t have any hands-on skills working with technologies that are important today, like Oracle and Microsoft and VMWare. It’s at the community college where they get a chance to learn these skills. And only here, really.”
A Bright Future for BACCC Students
Capable of accommodating 320 simultaneous connections and up to 17,920 individual 3-hour lab sessions during a 24/7 week, the BACCC’s NETLAB+ system has ample capacity to support more students, colleges and curriculum.
In addition to expanding its IT offerings, the BACCC is looking at new use cases that would benefit other programs. Grotegut explains:
“With NETLAB+, there are ways to support any program that requires the use of a software application. For example, in business courses, a lot of schools teach QuickBooks. They have to pay to license the software and have it installed in the classroom. The problem is that the software is only accessible to students when the classroom is open. With NETLAB, we can put QuickBooks licenses on a virtual machine that’s accessible 24/7, so students can practice any time. They can access it locally in class or remotely. We see a lot of opportunities to do things for other programs, while continuing to expand and offer the new technologies required for people in IT.”