What’s bad for rural colleges is bad for America
An FKD Feature exclusive

It has always been a difficult task to fill college faculties with qualified, experienced professors. But the undertaking has reached epic proportions. Especially where vocational positions like nursing and electrical work are concerned. Multiply that by the hassle of reaching out-of-the-way, small, rural colleges and universities, and it all adds up to a crisis. Small towns are running out of workers because an education is required to work in certain fields. An education that people are having a hard time finding. These would-be workers are running out of professors to instruct them. So how will the problem be solved?

Why teach, and make half?

Alberto Bellina, a teacher of petroleum technology at Williston State College in North Dakota, is considering changing professions. Or rather, he is considering diving into the profession for which he is trained and licensed to teach. As the difference between teaching and actually doing can mean two times the salary, Bellina is strongly tempted to make the switch. Even if it does mean stranding his college without a professor qualified to teach in petroleum technology.

“Let’s face it,” Bellina said, “a guy who is doing my job out in the industry is probably making twice what I’m making [at the college.]”

Worried about his family staying financially afloat, Bellina, who is earning a master’s degree, plans to re-enter the industry for the sake of its financial benefits. And, it seems, he is not alone in that decision. All over the nation, rural colleges are losing their faculties in the vocational areas — skilled professionals who would rather work in their industries than teach. It just makes financial sense to do so.

The issue has already shown its consequences in seemingly small and, yet, impactful ways. For instance, Randy Smith, who is the president of Sisseton Wahpeton College, a 250-student tribal school in rural South Dakota, and the president and director of the Rural Community College Allegiance, said he notices the change in the town in which he lives: As a rancher, Smith must bring his tractor in for repairs pretty regularly. But because there is a lack of skilled mechanics “it [is usually] weeks and weeks and weeks before [he gets] it back.”

Not just a rural, but a national, problem

This skilled-worker shortage is a major issue. Not just for the immediate and surrounding areas, either (although local businesses will certainly suffer as colleges fail to draw residents to the area). This issue will most likely prove troublesome for the national economy at large.

Due to a nationwide shortage of skilled workers across rural towns, a new wave of retirees will have an especially devastating effect on the United States’ blue-collar industries. And, supposedly, it will only get worse in the next few years. Especially considering that so many vocations require certain degrees, or certificates, to practice. If there are no teachers to help students attain these degrees, then the economy could stall.

Experimental teaching methods

With these new difficulties, colleges have been forced to become creative about attracting and keeping faculty on board. North Dakota has adapted by allowing nursing-school students to receive instruction from nurses at their primary places of work — hospitals. This makes it easier for these nurses to work and teach simultaneously, and thus incentivizes them to do so.

In the town of Hazen, there is a hospital that includes both a classroom and a lab full of things like adult and baby training mannequins. Here, nurse Lacey Johnsrud teaches four students that attend the Bismarck State College nursing program. Johnsrud said she most likely would not have chosen to accept the teaching position were it not extremely convenient for her. Although Johnsrud, who does not have a master’s degree, can only teach clinical classes (and not theory), the national deficit has necessitated a reduction in the requirements needed to teach.

“With my students, I get to go out on the floor with them and we take care of patients,” she said, “so I have the classroom teaching part of it and then also we’re taking care of patients on our clinical days, so I feel like it’s a good mix of everything.”Johnsrud fills a void left by the previous nursing instructor who decided she could no longer juggle both her teaching and hospital jobs. An issue is that these colleges and universities aren’t always good about reporting problems to policymakers, and the state authorities who could potentially reverse these deficits.

“Without accurate numbers revealing the shortfall, it’s tough to fix the problem,” said Mary Jo Self, an associate professor of occupational education studies at Oklahoma State University.

Frank Phillips College is also pursuing unique strategies to fill their vocational vacancies. One such method is pounding the pavement in the surrounding area looking for skill-specific workers who have a passion for teaching. Even so, Jud Hicks, the president of the school said that it is surprisingly hard to staff any of their vocational programs. Some schools say that they are asking retired professors to come out of retirement and return to their teaching positions. Still more schools are beginning to offer perks, such as summer vacations, to entice younger instructors with budding families.

Takeaway

The lack of qualified teachers in vocational areas of study is not just a rural issue. It is also a national one. But there is much support for the belief that colleges are stepping up to the plate and making the effort to fix the issue. Not only are schools getting creative about how they attract university professors, but many school leaders are beginning to seek the assistance and advice of the business world.

Though there has been a long-bemoaned communication deficit between colleges and the industry, this seems to be changing in the face of a dire need. Colleges “are reaching out to the business world and asking, ‘Can you help us?’” said Chris Zirkle, an associate professor of workforce development and education at Ohio State University. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I’ve never seen this level of cooperation.”

 

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Posted 06.28.2018 - 08:00 am EST