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Calibrate Pioneers

Houston Community College

Calibrate helps us ensure that the competencies we’re teaching are industry-driven and validated by our local industry partners into the occupations that a particular award may align.
— Thom Ronk

Houston Community College has more than 85,000 students and is surrounded by eight other community college districts as well as dozens of universities and private career colleges. The region is filled with employers whose leaders have publicly complained that the school districts and colleges are not preparing their students for the in-demand skills needed for unfilled jobs. With all that going on, HCC is in the midst of a culture change where faculty, deans, and students are expected to understand what employers want and how to incorporate that into teaching and learning.

“We want to teach what employers value to promote economic advancement for all our students while increasing their overall well-being, too. It’s our responsibility to ensure we do,” said Thom Ronk, manager of curriculum support and research at Houston Community College, who is using the Calibrate online tool to bring together faculty, students and employers.

“Our students trust that the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we teach them lead to a career or will transfer to a four-year college,” said Ronk. “This kind of validation and curriculum alignment is good ethics.”

As part of their efforts to be responsible to students, employers, and the community, Houston Community College is using Calibrate to determine the most important skills and competencies in demand. Calibrate streamlines the identification of industry needs using online validation surveys with local employers. Calibrate then helps instructors and curriculum coordinators map what is being taught in a class with what employers expect of a student upon graduation.

“Calibrate is helping us create a common language, a common industry language for the faculty as well as the students,” Ronk said. “The faculty and students, of course, will still use the student learning outcomes. But now they’re going to be talking the language of what they’re actually going to be doing every day on the job.”

Houston Community College is using Calibrate in three ways:

  1. Utilize Job Profiles information, which is information about what people do at hundreds of jobs.

  2. Validate the activities, knowledge, and even soft skills necessary to do the job. A short electronic survey is sent to industry experts in the community to rank which skills, knowledge, and abilities are most important for that job. The ranking process is quick for employers to complete and continually updated online.

  3. Align curriculum by showing how courses line up with what local business leaders say is important when hiring a student from HCC.

Houston Community College offers 275 degrees and certifications across more than 20 campuses. Ronk initiated the use of Calibrate to support faculty with developing and aligning the curriculum with industry-validated competencies in order to reveal the strengths, and possible gaps, to ensure programs teach what graduates need to know and do to successfully perform on the job.

Like many curriculum coordinators, Ronk considered organizing a traditional job analysis process where HCC facilitators would work with various faculty and deans to recruit dozens of outside employees who were performing a specific job or their supervisors. These events require panels of experts to volunteer two days to participate in person and discuss the many duties, tasks, knowledge, skills, and habits necessary to perform the job. Ronk considered organizing up to 20 two-day DACUM (Developing a Curriculum) events a year to understand what was necessary to perform 20 specific jobs to support curriculum alignment.

That was too much.

“Originally, we considered a goal of 20 DACUMs a year, but we realized that wasn’t feasible. DACUMS are costly and time- consuming. It would be hard to coordinate so many employers and get them approved paid time off work for two days. Then you must make sure you’ve identified employees who currently do the specific occupation of the job analysis every day in the room for two days. It’s a lot.”

“So far, Calibrate has made creating a job analysis much quicker and easier,” Ronk said. Although he doesn’t yet fully know, Ronk anticipates that validating the competencies with employers will also be more efficient and effective in the long run, even though a few programs reported that selecting employers to verify is taking a bit more time than expected.

Houston Community College has started with a pilot project looking at what is most needed to perform 15 primary occupations aligned to some AAS degrees. HCC is compiling “validation” reviews by local subject matter experts at employers in the college’s district and around Houston.

“Every workforce instruction award HCC offers is identified with a primary occupation, which often includes a few secondary occupations, that lead to an in-demand career opportunity,” Ronk said. “We want to teach what matters.”

For HCC, this is the first year of an ongoing process with Calibrate.

“We’re trying to help students think about the jobs market so that when they get done with their classes they’re more informed about their chosen career path and more importantly how to market their skills with employers. Our goal is to connect graduate competencies to job skill requirements.”

“Everyone involved so far sees its importance and relevancy,” Ronk said. Everyone involved in the initial training of Calibrate responded in a survey that they like Calibrate.

As more validation surveys come back from subject matter experts of different occupations, then the programs will use Calibrate’s “Align” function to see how much the coursework for a class aligns with the skills and competencies needed for corresponding job profile in the local jobs market.

Calibrate supports many state and national education mandates on employability outcomes, including the state-mandated Marketable Skills Goal of 60x30TX.

Ronk is encouraged that the SkillsEngine developers are rolling out new visual tools to map skills that employers have said they are hiring for to what is being taught in class.

“I believe you have to start with the end in mind: employability and transferability. We’re committed to making our students more employable,” Ronk emphasized. “So this new tool allows us to really revisit what we’re offering with the end in mind. We’re trying to make students more employable and prepare them for their current career path and the ever-changing future of work.”