The Planning and Design of Workforce Development Centers

Colleges and universities across the U.S. are creating workforce development centers to educate and train a new workforce. Programs frequently fall into two categories: industry-specific skilled trades training and automotive engineering training.

The U.S. unemployment rate has dipped below four percent for the first time in decades and American businesses are experiencing a shortage of skilled workers. A January 2018 Beige Book report prepared by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta cites labor shortages throughout the country and across many industries. Companies are finding they need to increase pay in order to attract and retain workers. Many report losing out on potential new business due to the lack of skilled labor.  At the same time, jobseekers are embracing opportunities to improve their skills so that they can pursue more lucrative job opportunities.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: Federal Funding for State Workforce Development Programs

To address the skills gap in the workforce and help jobseekers obtain training and support, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which President Obama signed into law in 2014. The law is designed to help jobseekers access employment, education, training, and support services to succeed in the labor market, and to match employers with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy. WIOA’s enactment was the first major reform of a federal job-training program in 15 years. By offering a combination of federal grants and low-interest loans to states, WIOA creates incentives for the creation of workforce development centers.

Workforce Development Centers in Higher Education Settings

In response to WIOA, and in support of their communities, colleges and universities across the U.S. are creating workforce development centers to educate and train a new workforce. Programs frequently fall into two categories: industry-specific skilled trades training and automotive engineering training.

Industry-specific skilled trades training programs. Most of these programs are designed to serve a wide range of students (ages 16 through 80) who are beginning a new career in skilled trades. Training tends to focus on specialized industrial technical needs and skills (e.g., electronics, equipment programing, robotics) in addition to hands-on brick-and-mortar construction methods. To attract and compete for students and faculty members in this market, leading institutions are requesting facilities that are welcoming, safe, flexible, equipped with the latest state-of-the-art technologies and machinery, and that mimic real-world work settings.

Automotive engineering programs. Where this industry is headed is anyone’s guess, but one thing’s for certain: technology has become the disruptor. Automated driving, artificial intelligence (AI), connectivity, engine and transmission designs, and safety features/sensors are just a few of the characteristics of today’s new vehicles. Additionally, there remains significant interest in “traditional” vehicles of all types and sizes. These programs require design and testing facilities that resemble real-world automotive plants and mimic the specialized workplace settings in which automotive engineers operate.

When effectively designed, these centers are useful and attractive to students and faculty members alike. In many cases, colleges and universities are making their facilities available to automotive manufacturers seeking to train new staff or existing staff on new equipment. Some are used as regional or national technical training facilities.

The best design teams for these types of facilities have a unique and hard-to-come-by combination of expertise in both the automotive/industrial arena and the field of higher education. Such a team will be fully able to consider both (a) the specialized equipment involved and the facility’s corresponding technical needs, as well as (b) the demands of today’s generation of students and their parents. A team with these qualifications can design a facility that best meets the needs of all stakeholders, infusing it with the “wow” factor that’s useful in recruiting students and faculty.

Best Practices in the Design of Workforce Development Centers

The four years since the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act have been instructive for design teams. Experience tells us that the most effective and successful workforce development centers are designed with a few common characteristics.

Student-centered. It’s advisable to design the space to accommodate students of all ages, including those who are newly entering the workforce as well as those changing career paths. In some cases, the facility should be designed to address the specific needs of each age group and provide spaces where they can work separately, as well as areas in which age groups can mix.

Example: A recent project for a rural Midwestern college required a design that addressed the needs of two well-defined groups of students who would be using the new workforce development center. The first group, “traditional” students, would likely use the center between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The second group, “nontraditional” students, might be older, employed full-time, and/or come to the program to prepare for a new/different career path on their own initiative or as instructed by their employer. These two groups would not necessarily mix comfortably. The design incorporated a separate lounge area for the nontraditional students that would feel welcoming while still connected to the program and all other activities and students.

Flexible for use by different labs and programs. Flexible spaces that can be easily adapted and utilized by multiple programs are desirable. Flexibility has a broad application; it means more than just the ability to move walls and furniture. Technology, lighting, and connectivity must also be flexible. For example, could one space provide an auditorium-style setup that seats 200 students facing a speaker at the front of the room, and an hour later subdivide into seating for smaller groups of students working collaboratively on projects?

To accommodate both situations, wireless technology should be adaptable, enabling all students to use personal devices and upload data and the instructor to use a wireless AV system if desired. The room’s finishes must also be durable, easily cleaned, and safe for the programs.

Infused with technology and infrastructures that are reprogrammable to meet evolving needs. As learning spaces become increasingly flexible and reconfigurable, so must the infrastructure and connectivity of systems. With the rapid advancement of technology, the equipment commonly in use when the facility is in the design stage might well be obsolete in the 1 to 3 years it takes to go through the bid and construction stages. The facility’s technological capacity must be flexible so it can adapt and keep up with advances in the field.

Additional Considerations

Many of the educational institutions creating workforce development centers seek to do so without expanding their real estate footprint. When hiring a design team with the right combination of experience, those who understand the intricacies of both automotive/industrial and higher education facilities typically are able to renovate an existing building to meet the requirements of a workforce development program. It’s even possible to gut an existing building so that all that remains is structural steel, exterior walls, and the roof, and create a brand-new state-of-the-art workforce development center within the existing walls.

With the right team in place, the possibilities are endless.

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