Affordability, Business Needs Drive Pulaski Tech Growth

From its early years as a modest vocational school downtown, Pulaski Technical College has grown to become a campus with seven locations, 91 degrees and certificates, 364 full-time faculty and staff and more than 11,000 students.

Its story illustrates the role that technical and community colleges play in being flexible and responsive in meeting the educational needs of a community and the economic needs of the region's businesses.

"We continue to try to keep the pulse of the local economy and keep the pulse of our local industry - existing and new ones coming in - to make sure that we're always at the table with them to offer what they need to make sure that they can stay competitive," said Dan F. Bakke, president of Pulaski Tech.

In 2000, the college's enrollment was a shade more than 4,300. This spring, the school had nearly tripled to 11,167 students.

"We've never grown for growth's sake," said Tim Jones, director of public relations and marketing.

Instead, the school has expanded in response to a need for affordable higher education and because the future of the state's economy depends on having a skilled work force.

In the last 10 years, the college has undertaken several major expansions and building projects, totaling more than $57 million.

It also has added courses, most recently an entrepreneurship program and a green building program, which starts in August and will certify construction workers of varying skill levels in sustainable building practices.

But along with the growth and new construction, the school also deals with challenges, Jones said.

Many at Pulaski Tech are the first in their families to attend college.

Because the school has open enrollment, and therefore anyone can get in, Pulaski Tech offers its own academic placement test. A good number of students must take remedial development courses to ensure they're prepared for college-level work, he said.

That's the first obstacle for many students, but it isn't the last.

"College algebra is there, and it's a hurdle," Jones said.

The average age of a Pulaski Tech student is 29, and two-thirds of the students are women. Most students have part- or full-time jobs off campus, and many are single parents, he said.

Jones mentioned one former student who was a mother of six and was in an abusive marriage. She got a divorce but had never worked outside the home and found that she would need other resources to support her children. At the suggestion of a friend, she enrolled at Pulaski Tech and proceeded to become immersed in campus life, availing herself of many of the school's services. She graduated recently with a 4.0 average, Jones said.

"These are highly motivated people who want a better life for their family," he said.


Retaining Students

Despite the motivation, relatively few of Pulaski Tech's students will actually complete an associate's degree, Jones acknowledged.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid website, the school's most recent graduation rate was 13 percent. That figure refers to students who enroll and complete their program within 150 percent of the advertised time, for example completing a two-year program within three years.

The retention rate - the percentage of first-time, first-year undergraduate students who reenroll for a second year - is 54 percent, while the transfer rate is 19 percent, according to the site.

"The things that we have identified as the areas where we have the greatest challenges and need to improve the most are in graduation and retention," Jones said. "The people that enter our developmental courses are at a disadvantage inasmuch as they have to take noncredit courses. Sometimes they may have to take two or three before they can get into college algebra."

Students don't always anticipate how challenging college will be.

"Once they're here, life happens. When you deal with large numbers of people that are first-generation college students who are coming from further down the rung socio-economically, there is a real problem with anybody that's coming from a situation of poverty or near poverty, and getting very basic kinds of things that middle-class people take for granted: a car that works, not moving every two or three months, not living with their extended family members, that kind of thing," he said.

"So we see a lot of people who come in with the best of intentions, but for one reason or another, cannot follow through. And we recognize that as something that has to change. There's no easy solution."

Pulaski Tech has identified two areas it needs to focus on most: the developmental programs and tutoring and advising students, Jones said.

Challenges with the developmental programs relate "directly to the retention issue, because if you stumble out of the gates, the likelihood of success is diminished," he said.

In recent years the school has implemented several programs that are intended to increase student success. These include the Career Pathways program, which provides support to low-income students who have children, and the Network for Student Success, which primarily is aimed at helping young black male students stay focused and engaged on campus, Jones said.

Often, students will enroll at Pulaski Tech and declare a major in order to qualify for financial aid. But if their coursework qualifies them for a promotion at their current job or an offer of a new one before they complete a degree, they won't finish, which is reflected in the school's graduation numbers, Bakke said.


Welding Work

On a recent morning during the slower-paced summer session, Jones pointed out the welding shop as an example of how Pulaski Tech fills the need for skilled labor.

He mentioned some welding students who had finished at the end of the spring semester. Several of them now have jobs with Welspun Tubular LLC, a subsidiary of Welspun Corp. Ltd. That group, like many others at Pulaski Tech, was a diverse bunch.

One student was a 25-year-old woman who already had some professional welding experience. One was from Alexander and had just graduated high school and another was a 62-year-old refugee from Hurricane Katrina who had previously been a janitor. Now, two semesters and a professional welding certificate later, several from the group are earning up to $30 an hour, Jones said.

Graduate job placement can be tricky to measure, because so many students are already employed while in school, he said. Just how quickly they find work in their field of study depends largely on the demands of the market.

"We cannot graduate welders fast enough," Jones said.

In terms of enrollment demand, programs in the school's Allied Health & Human Services Division, such as nursing, dental assistance and respiratory therapy, are very popular.


Aviation Aims

Pulaski Tech's aviation courses have fluctuated in enrollment recently. A few years ago, the school saw a lot of interest in aircraft modification courses.

"That was a direct result of the fact that Dassault and Hawker Beechcraft both had three-year waiting lists for customizing Learjets and other kinds of airplanes," Jones said.

When the recession hit, much of that demand went away. Typical enrollment in aviation courses during the school year is about 150.

"We have room for 200, but thanks to the economy it's kind of slow," said Steve Hotle, aviation maintenance program director. "They are picking up, though."

While the interest in customization courses might have waned slightly, Pulaski Tech is starting a certification course in avionics, Hotle said.

The main objective of the aviation program is for students to learn what they need to earn the Federal Aviation Administration's Airframe & Powerplant certification, which is a license to work in civil aviation anywhere in the United States, Hotle said.

Earning an avionics certificate in addition to the FAA certification would give aviation jobseekers a leg up. But they still might have a tough time finding a job in central Arkansas.

The aviation job market in the region is largely related to manufacturing, which has seen a big slowdown since the recession began. Both Hawker Beechcraft and Dassault Falcon Jet have had considerable layoffs in the last couple of years.

"There are jobs all over the country for licensed mechanics, just not in central Arkansas at the moment," Hotle said.

Hotle said he believed that, although the aviation industry was hurting, the resulting bad publicity had overshadowed the fact that jobs were still available in many places for qualified airplane mechanics.

"The jobs are there; you've just got to look for them," he said. "Our last graduating class, two of the guys within a week were in New York City working on helicopters, making 27 bucks an hour, and they're right out of school. If it's going to be a career, you've got to go where the career is."


Culinary Ambition

Pulaski Tech's Arkansas Culinary School originated as an apprentice program separate from the college. In January 2007, Pulaski Tech acquired the assets of the Arkansas Culinary Apprenticeship Program, Jones said. Enrollment went from 24 people to 150 in a year, quickly outgrowing the facilities. The school is now located at the south campus on Interstate 30. Students get real world kitchen experience cooking at the cafés at the south campus and the main campus in North Little Rock.

Because of the high interest in the culinary program, the school added a hospitality degree and other courses such as baking and wine and spirits.

"They spit," Jones said of the wine and spirits course. "They're doing this at 9 in the morning. It's a subtle sensory thing that some people can get and some can't."

Last spring, the culinary school received accreditation from the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation and the Accreditation Commission for Programs in Hospitality Administration. It is the only school in Arkansas to be accredited by the ACFEF.

"We're proud because our graduates will come out with a level of accomplishment and an objective certification that is going to make them competitive with anyone in the country," Jones said.

Finding a job in the industry isn't a problem for graduates, said Renee Smith, assistant director of the culinary school.

"I get calls and e-mails from people in the industry - restaurants, hotels, country clubs, tourism attractions - every week looking for employees," Smith said.


Economic Mission

Part of Pulaski Tech's mission statement concerns supporting the economic development of the state. The Business & Industry Center plays a big role in that task by helping ensure that new and existing employers have access to skilled labor.

"We have an advisory board made up of representatives from the business community in a variety of industries in the area, and they meet with us four times a year," said Mary Ann Shope, vice president for economic development with the BIC. "Our agenda is to talk about what the needs are in central Arkansas, and if there is anything on the radar coming up that we need to know."

The BIC offers a wide array of courses in everything from cabinetry to computer training, as well as customized learning tailored to a company's specific needs. The center works closely with the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services in helping companies with testing for potential employees and pre-employment training, Shope said.

The BIC collaborates with area chambers of commerce and economic development organizations.

"We also work really closely with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. When they're hosting potential newcomers to central Arkansas, we're often asked to come meet with them, and they want to talk about the kinds of programs Pulaski Tech has and how can they rely on us for hiring new people," she said.

Another need the school fills is in lowering the overall cost of an education for a student seeking a bachelor's degree. The majority of Pulaski Tech students pursue associate degrees, which will transfer to a four-year school such as the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"Getting two years of education here and taking it to a four-year institution saves thousands and thousands of dollars," Jones said.

John Suskie is chair of the Pulaski Tech board of trustees.

"Our grandchildren now are going and have gone to Pulaski Tech," he said. "You can go out there and get those two years and save your folks some money."