Local higher education institutions are tailoring programs and facilities to meet evolving business and industry needs.
In decades past, oil and information technology were the most significant components of the economy in Fort Bend County, and local colleges, universities and workforce training facilities focused on preparing students for careers in those two industries. But in recent years, manufacturing and health care have moved to the fore, prompting the county’s higher education institutions to respond by adding brand-new programs and facilities. And thanks to forward-thinking processes that include generous helpings of community input, the fast-growing county is also well-positioned to quickly adapt to future industry needs.
The University of Houston – Sugar Land and Cinco Ranch
“Both campuses are in transition right now,” says Richard Phillips, associate vice chancellor for the University of Houston system at Sugar Land and Cinco Ranch, referring to the two teaching sites under his watch, which offer students in the Sugar Land and Katy areas the chance to pursue degrees in a variety of high-demand fields, including education and nursing.
“We are transitioning the Sugar Land campus from a teaching center to an exclusive branch of the University of Houston main campus,” says Phillips, of what will be a two- to five-year process that begins in fall 2015 and will include bringing over programs from the colleges of education and technology, enabling even stronger partnerships with major local employers like Texas Instruments and Fluor Corp.
“We have a UH-Sugar Land advisory council composed of six members of the community that provides input as to the needs of the community, and then we do our own research at the university level, and that’s how we cultivate academic programs,” says Phillips, before saying that the next wave of initiatives are likely to focus on engineering and technology.
Houston Community College – Stafford and Missouri City
At the Houston Community College (HCC) locations in Fort Bend County, the emphasis is on capital improvements. Most notably, HCC recently broke ground on a $27 million workforce training facility at its Stafford campus, which will support training in welding, HVAC, pipe fitting and plumbing, says Charles Smith, chief facilities officer for HCC. The new facility will includes eight classrooms, seven labs, and a large space where students will be able to work with computer-controlled cutting machines and 3-D printers. Another major capital improvement program involves building a new center for technology and entrepreneurship on the Missouri City campus. As with all new facilities coming online in the HCC/Fort Bend system, the 70,000-square-foot space will not only be state-of the-art but also easy to repurpose, should the need arise.
“We are a taxpayer supported entity, so we have to be good stewards of our resources,” Smith says. “The facilities are 75- or 100-year-old buildings and designed and built to be very economical to operate, but also very flexible, so we can change them because the economy and the skills needs of the population change over time. We are looking at the life cycle cost of everything that goes into the buildings.”
Fort Bend Technical Center The Fort Bend Technical Center in Richmond is another local facility that excels at meeting the needs of industry, thanks to longtime partnerships that enable the center to continuously update its courses and equipment.
“We have a set of advisers that meet once or twice a year, and they go through our curriculum and make suggestions on updates,” says Chuck Abshier, who until recently served as division director for the center, which offers certificate and associate degree programs in mechanical engineering and industrial air conditioning, and also trains diesel truck mechanics.
Texas State Technical College (TSTC), Wharton County Junior College, the cities of Richmond and Rosenberg, the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, and Wharton and Fort Bend counties worked together to open the center, which includes programs offered by TSTC. Big corporations with a local presence – Caterpillar, for instance – often donate equipment to the center, which allows students to train on the same products they will be working on in the real world. “When companies hire our students, they are ready to go to work. They don’t have to spend money on training,” says Abshier, which helps explain the 95 percent placement rate across the three programs.
New TSTC Campus In The Works
Texas State Technical College announced plans in spring 2015 to build a permanent campus in the Rosenberg area following requests from area residents for the 50-year old school to increase its course offerings in Fort Bend County. The permanent campus is planned for an 80-acre site near U.S. Highway 59 and FM 2218 and FM 35 and include six buildings totaling 500,000 square feet. It would have the capacity to serve up to 5,000 students, compared the 1,400 students who take classes at TSTC at the Fort Bend Technical Center. “I cannot envision anything bigger that will have a positive impact than something like TSTC because you are now educating an entire workforce for future generations,” says Randall Wooten, TSTC Fort Bend County executive manager.
Commitment to Industry
For all educators in the region, everything comes back to being nimble and maintaining a laser-like focus on meeting local needs. Niagara Water has a warehouse in Missouri City that is almost completely automated, Smith says, citing one example. “We have a program that trains technicians to maintain that kind of environment,” he says. “At some point, we will have done a good job of filling the need for this kind of technician, and there will be a need for us to provide something else, at which time we will repurpose our facilities to support new programs.”