The heart of the region
NOVA supplies in-demand tech, health care, military workers
When the first class of Northern Virginia Community College’s cloud computing program graduated in spring 2020, its members may not have had the trappings of an in-person, pre-pandemic graduation, but they did get something with even more long-term value.
Every graduate who sought employment after earning their associate degree landed a job.
Chad Knights, provost of information and engineering technologies at Northern Virginia Community College — known as NOVA — describes the cloud computing specialization as “a shining star” among NOVA’s tech-focused courses of study, as well as a prime example of how the school has structured its program offerings to meet specific workforce needs in the Northern Virginia region.
This often involves direct partnerships with employers. The cloud computing program was launched in fall 2018 in collaboration with Amazon Web Services — a few months before AWS parent company Amazon.com Inc. announced plans to bring 25,000 jobs to the region with its $2.5 billion HQ2 East Coast headquarters currently under construction in Arlington.
NOVA was one of the first community colleges in the nation to offer a cloud computing program and it has since been expanded to community colleges around the state.
While the program was built with AWS’s cooperation, NOVA officials are quick to point out that the cloud computing degree provides a set of skills that can land graduates jobs at a variety of businesses using cloud platforms.
“We wanted to make sure we weren’t designing something for any one company — it was an industrywide need,” says Steven Partridge, NOVA’s vice president for strategic partnerships and workforce innovation. “We go into it saying, ‘Are there at least a dozen or more companies that have hundreds of employees they are hiring for the same skill set?’”
NOVA also collaborated with Micron Technology Inc. — which in 2018 announced plans for a $3 billion expansion of its Manassas memory chip plant — to ensure its engineering technology associate degree program was based on in-demand industry skill sets.
All 18 of that program’s 2020 graduates were placed in internships at Micron, where they will continue to build their skills. Another 20 students from the program began internships with Micron in February 2021.
“Our ability to supply our key employers throughout the region with interns and full-time staff in this space is a defining feature for us,” Knights says.
Addressing industry needs
With more than 75,000 students, NOVA is the largest public educational institution in Virginia, and the second-largest community college in the U.S.
It has drawn attention over the last several years for being the workplace of first lady Jill Biden. Biden taught English at NOVA throughout her years as second lady during the Obama administration, and she has announced her intentions to return this spring, balancing teaching with her duties as the nation’s first lady.
As America continues to wrestle with the high level of debt many students must take on to earn a traditional four-year degree, NOVA President Anne Kress says she sees her institution as being “at the heart of economic and social mobility in our region.”
“We are unique in that the door of opportunity is open to all at our college,” Kress says. “We represent the full diversity of our region, and whether their goals are university transfer or immediate employment, we are able to help students realize these dreams.”
NOVA has made some strategic moves in recent years to better position itself to respond to regional workforce needs — allowing it to create programs that can provide graduates with an almost guaranteed path to employment.
This is particularly true in two areas where officials have for years stated that there is an acute shortage of qualified workers: technology and health care.
To better address industry needs in technology, Knights was appointed to his current position in 2018, part of a restructuring that consolidated information and engineering technologies planning across the school’s six campuses.
On the health care side, Nicole Reaves, provost of NOVA’s Medical Education Campus in Springfield, recruits industry partners for advisory boards to help develop the school’s 21 industry-aligned health care programs. Students in NOVA’s nursing and health sciences programs receive clinical experience from employers such as Inova, Kaiser Permanente, Sentara Healthcare and Virginia Hospital Center.
“The clinical opportunities in which our students engage lead to employment after graduation for a large majority of our students,” Reaves says.
Building a workforce
Getting students into jobs doesn’t just increase the return on investment for NOVA’s students. It also helps fulfill two workforce development needs that have gotten recent attention at the state level — providing talent for high-demand jobs and retraining workers displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout.
Reaves believes the pandemic has sparked a renewed interest in pursuing careers in health care — particularly among those who have lost jobs in the service industry. She sees that interest in the record 800 applicants NOVA had for spring 2021 admission to its nursing program, which has only 80 seats.
At the state level, Gov. Ralph Northam announced in October 2020 his plans to direct $27 million in federal CARES Act funding to Virginia community colleges to help students cover tuition and fees in high-demand fields. NOVA received $5.8 million of this “Re-Employing Virginians,” or REV, funding. Kress said in January that the school had already disbursed more than $2 million in tuition vouchers among more than 1,000 students.
To forge more direct connections between students and employers, NOVA has increasingly sought out partners to create apprenticeship or internship opportunities that combine classroom training with on-the-job experience.
With a grant from the GO Virginia state economic development initiative, NOVA and Tysons-based security system manufacturer Alarm.com last year launched an apprenticeship program that combines 10 weeks of technical instruction at NOVA with nine months of on-the-job training at Alarm.com.
Victoria Schillinger, Alarm.com’s vice president for human resources, says the company wanted to create an apprenticeship program for talent development because it was having trouble finding enough job candidates.
Alarm.com had been seeking a company to set up the program when Schillinger realized NOVA already had this capability and could also provide classroom training.
“We felt that NOVA was a really good match for us, because they understood the market we are in — some of the intermediaries we might have worked with are in other states,” Schillinger says.
NOVA, she adds, has been like a “one-stop shop,” helping Alarm.com to establish the program and its curriculum, as well as providing classroom instruction.
“We have also liked how personalized and collaborative the partnership has been,” she says. “They have been in close touch about how successful apprentices are in the program.”
Mazen Salem worked full time as he pursued an associate degree in cybersecurity at NOVA and then his bachelor’s in cybersecurity engineering, which he expects to receive from George Mason University in May.
When he sought to transition his full-time work to match his field of study, he sought entry-level IT jobs and found the apprenticeship program at Alarm.com.
Starting in January 2020, Salem took three months of classes at NOVA and passed exams for three industry credentials, then transitioned to nine months as an apprentice at Alarm.com, where he was hired as a full-time IT associate in February.
“These were classes that directly applied to your career path,” Salem says of the instruction he received at NOVA. “The knowledge we learned in preparing for those exams really transferred to the job.”
He likes working for an employer that has helped invest in his training and says he’s able to have an open dialogue about where his continued studies might take his career.
Partridge says locally based, midsized firms such as Alarm.com are ideal partners for growing internship opportunities.
“This is the type of company we need to make this work,” he says. “For it to take off, the midsized companies have to see the value in it.”
That value lies partly in giving businesses a way to access a more diverse talent pool than they would find by insisting on a four-year degree for job applicants.
“We are trying to create more pathways in working with employers,” Partridge says. “It takes going employer by employer to say, ‘Listen, you can’t all wait at the end of the four-year pipeline and then all fight over an [insufficient] amount of students.’”
He sees an increasing number of tech-related firms beginning to reevaluate the need for hires to possess a bachelor’s degree, because they can’t find large numbers of individuals who have the specific skills they need, he says. In addition, an increasing number of employers are realizing that requiring a bachelor’s degree can be a barrier to attracting a workforce that is more racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse.
“The apprenticeship model is a great way to combine what many students always lack, which is the work experience, with the hard skills they need to be successful,” he says. “It is time-consuming to set up, and has been slowed somewhat by the pandemic, but as we come back, you are still seeing a lot of jobs going unfilled in IT and high-demand areas. … [The apprenticeship model is] starting to catch on as an alternative way to get some really bright individuals with the skills you need in those jobs.”
In addition to working with private businesses, NOVA has also won recognition for programs that serve the needs of the military and government agencies.
NOVA’s applied program in cyber-security, now in its eighth year, is recognized by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency as a National Center of Academic Excellence.
The cybersecurity program helped NOVA become one of five schools in the U.S. selected to participate in the pilot phase of the U.S. Naval Community College program, which launched in January. Ninety Sailors, Marines and Coast Guard personnel are enrolled in the pilot phase at NOVA, which Knights says builds upon other recent collaborations with the military.
When the U.S. Marine Corps needed help training service members in data intelligence, NOVA worked with them, in collaboration with AWS, to create a program focused on data analytics, cloud computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
“It was the first time we were aware of that enlisted Marines were sent to an academic institution outside of the military to complete a training requirement,” Knights says. It also introduced the first courses on machine learning and artificial intelligence within the Virginia Community College System.
The second cohort of that program is expected to graduate in March.
As NOVA continues to develop programs to serve emerging industry needs — including another new program training data center technicians — Knights says one of the biggest signs of success is the rate at which its students are pursued by employers. He says that pursuit is starting to happen long before they have finished their courses of study.
“As soon as they have a technical footing, the demand is so great that they get scooped up by the industry,” he says.