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This country has a skilled trades crisis, but should four-year universities be involved in the solution?

The University of Northern Iowa is seeking $38 million to update its industrial technology (now known as department of technology) facilities. There may be better options.

In 1975, UNI opened its Industrial Technology Center to much fanfare and promotion as one of the country’s most advanced higher education industrial technology facilities.

The former UNI industrial arts program, located in what is now Latham Hall, outgrew the space due to increasing enrollment and a need for lab and equipment space not suited to a facility built in 1947. The university (then Iowa State Teachers College) was answering a call for industrial training as GIs returned home from World War II seeking jobs in a burgeoning manufacturing era. This was one of the few places where the art and science of industrial technology would be taught by a cadre of teachers versed in all things industrial.

I witnessed first-hand the academic world when I agreed in 1995 to become involved with the UNI department of industrial technology as a member of the department’s “advisory council” and as an adjunct instructor, bringing my business experience to bear as a practitioner and technology advocate. In 2008 I accepted a position to manage the department’s graphics lab and continued teaching responsibilities.

Space doesn’t allow for a more detailed description of my experience with the university, but suffice it to say I worked in the department during a time when there were five different department heads and three different university administrations. In eight short years that added up to some interesting mismanagement, poor hiring decisions and little, if any, oversight of how the department was servicing its clientele, the students.

Something that struck me during my entire time serving on the department’s advisory council and as a faculty/staff person was the sheer lack of knowledge of what was happening with the training of the skilled trades and how the university might have taken advantage of working closer with local industry and both high school and community college programming. It simply didn’t happen, and I’m not aware of any organized effort to coordinate what the university is offering with programs such as the Waterloo School’s Career Center or Hawkeye Community College’s skilled trades career offerings.

There is duplication of programs within the UNI department of (industrial) technology that overlaps both HCC programming (along with other community college programs within the state) and existing industrial arts programs at high schools within the UNI market area.

What should be done? It might be more logical and economical to eliminate the department of (industrial) technology altogether. Here is what I propose:

1) Move the technology and engineering education programs in the department to the UNI College of Education. Why wouldn’t this be included in a college where the most up-to-date and relevant teaching methods are taught?

2) Eliminate the manufacturing and electrical engineering programs. Much of what is in those programs is duplicated at other Iowa-based community college programs. Credits from those community college programs could then be transferred to UNI if students want to pursue either management (College of Business) or teaching certifications (College of Education).

3) Move the graphic technologies program to UNI’s department of communication studies. Why this program hasn’t been moved before now makes little sense as the technology involved is duplicated within several communications studies programs. Communications studies incorporates all aspects of graphic communications and is well organized and managed.

4) Move technology management to the UNI department of computer science.

5) Move construction management to the College of Business. Construction techniques and processes are taught at the community college level so credits can be transferred should students want to move further into management positions and need a bachelor’s degree. The key word here is management, something the College of Business teaches at an elevated level.

6) Eliminate both the graduate and doctoral programs. Neither has the rigor or standing to make them of more value than similar programs found in other UNI colleges and departments. Having taken courses required for both of these graduate degrees, I can attest to their lack of intensity and industry purpose.

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Jim Volgarino is a Waterloo native, retired business owner, and former teacher and freelance writer.

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