S1:E23 Dr. Joe May – Bridging Gaps with Professional Certificates

July 13, 2021 |  Students
34 min

Dr. Joe May is Chancellor of Dallas College and the driving force behind a program providing professional certifications that bridge the gap between job candidates and the employer needs.


Tyler Jacobson  0:01

Welcome to LabChats, a podcast from the team at LabStats. I’m Tyler Jacobson, your host for today’s episode. Each week, we’ll sit down with technology leaders in higher education to get the latest buzz and insights while we discuss current events, trends, problems and solutions. Now let’s get into it. For today’s episode of LabChats we have with us Dr. Joe May, who’s Chancellor at Dallas College. Joe, did you want to take a minute and just give a little bit of a whirlwind overview of your experience, and then we can talk about education a little bit?

Dr. Joe May  0:37

Sure, Tyler, and thank you so much for allowing me to join you today. It’s a real pleasure to be here. Dallas College, like most people would guess, is in Dallas, Texas, where urban institutions enroll roughly 150,000 students each year at our location. So one of the larger institutions in the country. I guess what’s unique about us in some ways, is that for over 50 years, we operated as seven separate institutions. And this past year, we consolidated into a single institution and you know, folks ask “Why did you do that?”, it was really simple. You know, in today’s world, as individuals are often picking education almost in programs and à la carte type manner that having seven options out there was just too many and was causing actually people to not earn credentials or degrees because they were picking up from different locations around and even though it kind of looked like those might come together for a degree because they were from different institutions, they often did not. So we’ve really simplified our institutions, streamlined the process for students, made it easier for employers to connect and [we’re] proud to be here and proud to be a part of today’s conversation.

Tyler Jacobson  2:06

Excellent. So what prompted us to invite you on was we were speaking with Ryan Craig, and he was talking to you holding you up as an example of some of the certification programs you’ve introduced to Dallas College. Give me a little background on what you did, and and a little bit of what you’re trying to accomplish with that. 

Dr. Joe May  2:26

Yeah, sure. And [I] appreciate that. And Ryan [is] always someone I enjoy talking with. He’s a great one to bounce ideas off of, and to get his input and kind of reaction to things. So I appreciate [you] following up with Ryan’s conversation. The idea that we realize is that for so many of our students it really is about: how do they take where they are in life today, where they would like to be in life and [how do they] get there? And often is just a bridge too far for them to comprehend. So many of our students either weren’t successful with their previous educational experience, not because they didn’t have the ability. It’s often that they didn’t have the motivation, or they didn’t see the opportunities, or they’ve grown up in families that had told them “Well, you can’t go to college because we can’t afford it. So why plan, why pursue?” And yet they have great ability, but they find themselves in a situation where they’re needing to work. And so what we’ve realized is that we can do a couple of things to really help with that. If we provide opportunities for certifications first, and we call it certificates first, in terms of and programs, allowing people to earn a certification that has real market value today. And in today’s economy, in today’s marketplace, and so that they can get a job, let’s say paying $50,000 a year, rather than $15 an hour that they might have made otherwise. This allows them to begin to build not only a more robust educational experience, and be able to plan for the long term both for themselves, their educational career, their career and the economy in the workforce, as well as how they can serve their family and meet the broader needs of the community. So we’ve designed this we call it “True Pathways”. But the idea is that they start with a certification, often industry-based, almost always non-credit that serves as a foundation that leads to a job that in and of itself has marketability in the economy and the workplace. But the great news is that we dovetail and count that toward more traditional degrees. So that just because you started and what would be something that’s often offered by a boot camp or another non-institutional provider is actually now part of an educational plan and program and takes individuals from where they are in life to where they want to be.

Tyler Jacobson  5:09

Okay, that is excellent. And you, you generated about six more questions in my mind while you’re talking. It sounds like an exciting program. What are you doing as far as you said, marketability? How are you giving that program like value or teeth when a student comes out? And are you going to the employers first? or How are you giving it true value? 

Dr. Joe May  5:34

Yeah, great, great question. And we created about seven years ago at Dallas College, something that we call the Labor Market Intelligence Center. And the labor market side builds off of commonly available data, we’ve got great partners such as Chimera Burning Glass, EMSI [and] others that helped us really do a great job of analyzing the market, understanding what jobs are in demand, going over looking at ads that are being placed, looking at the salaries, the income. Well, unless the data side. The intelligence side then is getting out and engaging employers directly in understanding and partnering with them. And what we find is that that last piece is critical. The data gives us kind of a hunting license, if you would, of where to be targeting, where to look at but then you had to really get down and look at the specifics. So, I’ll just pick one that is on everybody’s mind these days: cybersecurity. So a cybersecurity certification and credential is not a “one size fits all”. Depending on the needs of your organization, depending if you’re looking at someone doing forensics, as opposed to, you know, active combat of really protecting in real time your assets and resources in that space. And so the skill sets may be overlapping. But the credentials may be different for what’s there. The same is true in healthcare, and other areas that are out there as well. So understanding specifically, what’s being…I guess, in the market today, what are employers looking for? What problems are they trying to solve, and what may be necessary in order to specifically meet those needs. So we generally start with the employer first. [We] make sure that we understand the need. So let’s pick a bank. Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, it doesn’t really matter. All of them have certain things that they’re looking for. And let’s say it’s individuals with a Google IT Professional Support Certification. So you’ve got that as someone that they’re looking for a skill, set that certification. So now we partner with Google. And we come together, because you would think that those automatically dovetail into degrees. They don’t. We then have to translate that so [that it] will. It’s easy to offer the certification, and it’s easy to offer the credit program, it’s not easy to bring those two together. So we’ve done that with organizations like Google, like Verizon, like Salesforce, AWS, others, where we not only partner with the employer, side of the house, but we also partner with the credential provider side of the house as well, so that we can bring those together for the benefit of both students and employers.

Tyler Jacobson  8:42

That seems like a critical piece, because anybody can write a curriculum and generate a certificate. But if that certificate doesn’t mean anything to the employer, it’s not going to provide value to either the employer or the student. So when you’re starting to enroll for these certificate programs, are those enrollments, employers that are directing employees to go get these certifications? Or is it prospective employees that are wanting to build their resume and land that dream job? Where are your students coming from?

Dr. Joe May  9:18

Yes, it really is all of them. Although, you know, we refer to our model as the Career Connected Network. And we also sometimes ascribe it from the student side that what they want to do is enroll in a job, that they’re really not looking to enroll in a program that’s just a means to an end along the way. So we really do start with that employer. But then look at how we identify the individuals that have needs. And so many of the employers that we work with…I’ll just pick Bank of America as one right now, but I could pick others, JP Morgan Chase or others, for example, are really doing a couple of things all at once. They’re looking at how they get the skill set that they need for employees. Number one that’s important. Do they have the skills needed to do the job? Secondly, though, they’re also looking at how to create a more diverse workforce, a workforce more reflective of the communities in which they’re located and serving. So they’re not looking at simply bringing in employees from traditional types of backgrounds or tracks. That’s kind of where we come in. And often, we partner with others, like organizations like Year Up, but it may be Boys Club, Girls Club, it may be others that can help us kind of figure out how we can bring individuals that we refer to as non-consumers of higher education. If you’ve read Clay Christensen’s words, he talks about non-consumers being the big market that’s out there. Well, we see that in education. So identifying those non-consumers, often they don’t look like traditional students, how do we want to invite them to support them in a way we can talk about that support side, because that’s really part of the network. I mean, it seems like public transportation is like food banks and pantries, it’s other services that are there. So we really provide wraparound services that once we bring them in, we want them to be successful. And we want an employer that will bring them on board and help them reinforce that, you know, our goal is even if they start out, and many times they do start out as interns that they stay there. That they become full time employees with that organization. So it’s a very robust relationship and pipeline with our employers.

Tyler Jacobson  12:02

Okay, so is this turning into something that’s become a recruiting channel for your regular programs?

Dr. Joe May  12:10

You know, that’s a great question. And I think it’s particularly important during this time of COVID, where we have had just major disruptions in the workforce. So you know, record unemployment last year, employers having trouble finding people, but employers are still having trouble finding people, even though we’re seeing the unemployment rates decline, more people going back to work, entering that. Right now, what we’re really looking for [is]: how do we find more students to take advantage of these programs in order to enroll? It’s kind of interesting. I’ve never before been at this point, partly because of the federal stimulus dollars. Other resources are that there are resources to virtually guarantee that almost anyone can go to college today, particularly community colleges, if not free, almost free, at just about everywhere, to get the type of support wraparound services. I mean, we’re providing, we just approved today, an additional 5 million to support childcare for our students. So we provide free public transportation passes for all of our students, we give them debit cards for food pantries and food banks in order to have access to that, and really support those needs. But we still are struggling to find enough people to meet the needs of employers in the area. I think that’s the big gap right now. And it’s getting that message across that: how do you get from where you are to a job? Which kind of gets back to this concept that we’ve talked about. As individuals want to enroll in a job, they don’t want to really go to college, they don’t really want to enroll in a program. They want to see a direct [of a] line from where they are in life to a better job and a better life. And so how can we connect [those] dots for them and make that apparent? And I still think that for a whole variety of reasons, we’re not doing a good job as a society, of showing people how to navigate that pathway in a way that they understand it, and see it as a low risk option for a better life.

Tyler Jacobson  14:44

I see that in, you know, the options my kids are looking at and things like that. That college may not be the most direct path to a job because it takes 2, 4, 6, 8 years depending on what degree you’re looking for. What is the timeline to complete one of these certificate programs? And so how quick could a student realistically be applying for these positions?

Dr. Joe May  15:12

As little as eight weeks. That’s available. Six months on the outside qualifies an individual for a great job. And right now in North Texas, for example, the Google IT Professional Support Certification is worth about $50,000 in the marketplace. That’s not bad. And, that’s the beginning. Now, here’s the key: that certification has a shelf life. Meaning that over time, it becomes less valuable. So if that’s all you have, and you’re not adding to your education and building off of it, that value will decline. It’s worth a great deal, relative to where a person is today. But that’s just really the beginning. So what we’re trying to do is, let’s get that fundamental [piece] in place, let’s get them the skills to get the job, and let’s help reinforce that, to help build that education background so that in the future, that they have the skills to build off of that and to add to it and be able to have a career, not just a job.

Tyler Jacobson  16:20

So is that something that you foresee as having a refresher certificate in five years, where you’re able to update them on new industry trends and things like that?

Dr. Joe May  16:32

Sure, sometimes it’s a booster, sometimes. It really is, this is the beginning. And you’re going to be building off of this. So we refer to it as stackable credentials. But it really is a pathway, a journey. We frame that out so that we show students, if you start here, here’s the next step, here’s the next step. And here’s ultimately where you can end up. And there are multiple options along the way. You know we try to limit that somewhat. You know, a friend of mine is always saying, “You know, students don’t do options well. They don’t do them well.” And others have talked about, “You start piling on the options that are out there, and it makes it confusing as to the decision that you want to make.” So try to keep it simple. Pointing out, you know, here’s the credential, here’s the job. Here’s, if you come back and pick up these courses are this program area, or these additional certifications, here’s what it can build into. And, you know, and this has really been something that’s not new, it’s been around for years. I mean, I have a son that became an EMT, then he became a paramedic, and then he became a fireman. And then he finished his bachelor’s degree, and then he got his master’s degree. So along the way…he’s worked in healthcare, he’s been a fireman, he’s worked in all these different areas, but it allowed him to build and now have a broader career, but along the way, pick up skills. But as someone said, insurance wasn’t really his reason for doing it. But it’s the idea. We’ve seen it in automotive, other areas where you can get certifications and build on that over time. Often, it’s not explained as a pathway. There are a lot of silos and one-offs. That’s the way my son saw it. He had to figure out his own network, he had to figure out what to do next. So we’re really figuring that out for the students. And we’re laying that out so that it’s clear, and that we’re nudging them along the way to make that easier for them. And if they want to change direction, we can help them with that as well.

Tyler Jacobson  19:17

You mentioned several different job categories, that from conversations that I’m having with people, there is a yearning need for people to fill these positions. So have you had any data to back up what your placement rates are with these certificates? How’s it working?

Dr. Joe May  19:39

Yeah, incredibly well. I mean, if we take the time upfront, to do the intelligence of sitting down with the employers, talking about what the needs are, talking about the jobs, then the jobs are there. It’s now a matter of working out what that relationship Looks like many times, it’s an internship, where you’ve come into a paid internship. But, and I guess this is something that whether it’s new or been around. But you know, internships used to be, I think in many cases, seen as just simply providing experience for the individual. It was an altruistic activity, a way of employers investing back, you would let a person come into your business or bank or organization and spend a semester or a year. But they weren’t really, they weren’t always really thinking about a long term career. And now I’ve got to tell you, employers are thinking very differently about that. I talked to firms all the time, “We want interns, but we really want them to be interested in staying with us. We’re looking at really investing in them, and doing this in a collaborative way. If they’ll agree to get this certification, we’ll agree to bring them on board, [and] put them in a paid position. But guess what? If they’ll continue their education, and we’ll help with that, there’s opportunities for them to advance.” So I love going back and visiting with students. We do a variety of events where…we used to do more…hopefully, we’re back into it again, now that we’re kind of coming out of the pandemic, but live events where we’re talking to students [and say]: “Just share your stories.” And, you know, they’re both powerful, and motivational, but also very instructive as we listen to individuals, because by saying, “If you do this step, then this happens.” And then if you’re here, and you do well, and you take advantage of these opportunities, then you have the possibility for this promotion, this advancement. And… you talk about beaming, when an individual that was mowing yards a year ago, has going through a six month certification program is now working at a major bank, and six months later is told that they’ve moved from intern into full time employee with a salary increase and opportunities for advancement, if they’ll continue their education…I mean, we’ve just changed their lives and their family’s lives. And given the bank, an employee that they’ve tested. This is not a high risk decision on their part. They know exactly who they’re getting. And the great news, if we do it right, there is very little failure. We can get about 90% of those successful, but it’s really up to the institution to do the groundwork first to build those networks to build those relationships. Too often, we’ve just left that up to the student, and we’ve left it up to the employers, “You guys figure it out.” And that just hasn’t worked well. And I don’t think it’s ever going to work well. And that’s why institutions need to set themselves up as really the connectors. And just kind of maybe if I could follow up on that. So imagine a chart with organizations. High schools, colleges, two year colleges, universities, employers, and a whole slew of them out here. And between them are dotted lines, right? That’s how we typically connect them. Well, the trouble with the dotted line is no one owns that dotted line. And the goal with the Career Connected Network is we focus on the dotted line. Our goal is to manage that and understand that transition. And to manage that at every step of the way. Through that process, because up until now, we’ve really left that up to chance. For both individuals, employers, and what we’re trying to do is take the chance out of it.

Tyler Jacobson  24:16

And you give a couple of excellent points there because I’ve always…my experience has been if you really want to get to know someone, work with them for a day. And you’re gonna understand them on a personal level as well as their skills level and things like that. And what more could you ask for, from a job perspective, employee interview type aspect of we’ve worked with them for three months, six months, a year. You know exactly. You have the relationship built, you verified the experience level, and they’re already trained on your own internal processes. So I can see that working very, very well. I wanted to change tracks just a little bit. You mentioned something right at the beginning that has had me thinking a little bit. You said that you guys have consolidated seven campuses into one unified institution. How did that go? 

Dr. Joe May  25:13

Well it’s going well, and, you know, the one thing we didn’t plan on was a pandemic. We had kind of mapped out the plan in 2019, looking at data and realizing that literally, we were having 1000s of students every year complete all the courses that they needed for a degree but couldn’t get the degree because there’s an accreditation rule from the Department of Education that says that in order to get a degree, you must have 25% of your courses from the institution awarding that degree. Well, with all of our colleges, and the availability of public transportation, I mean, the very things that have made urban living better over the last 20-25 years has actually created a problem for students that love to accelerate their process by going to multiple institutions at the same time. And so we would have students go while I completed all the courses he did, he checked every box, but one and that one means that you can’t earn the degree. And you can imagine that I mean…disappointment is an understatement. I mean, [students were just] deflated, just disillusioned by the process, and we didn’t have a workaround. You were to think we would realize this was going on, we didn’t. I became aware of it in June of 2019. By the end of June, I’d already gone to our board and said we’ve got to fix this problem. And the only solution is to consolidate our colleges into a single institution, they approved that. By August, we put together a plan, went to the Department of Education and our creditors, we pulled the trigger on that plan on March 16, and went into COVID lockdown on March 17. So…(laughs)

Tyler Jacobson  27:29

The timing was perfect!

Dr. Joe May  27:31

You know, but in a way it was because it allowed us to…we already mapped out the strategy. And we just implemented the new strategy, which actually made it easier to serve students and this changed environment. We converted from 15,000 classes online in four days. We were able to get students in classes very quickly and meet their needs. And, and honestly, I’m not sure if we were operating as seven institutions, we could have done it in four months, much less four days. And by just really immediately making that consolidation, operating from that moment as a single institution, I think made all the difference in the world. And it accelerated our process. So in a way, it was just fortunate that we had that plan in our hip pocket, ready to pull the trigger on when COVID hit. [It wasn’t] why we did it, but it turned out to actually be a help during what was just a crazy time anyway, so it worked well.

Tyler Jacobson  28:51

What we find is a lot of schools have multiple campuses, even the campuses are competitive with each other for recruitment enrollment. programs offered things like that. Was it pretty smooth to get people all on the same page and aligned? Or is there still a little bit of that competitive element that’s lingering?

Dr. Joe May  29:10

Yeah. So that’s a really important question. And, here’s a couple of…there’s a lot in that question, actually. So first, education in general, not just higher ed, but K-12. And others, for whatever reason, have developed autonomy as one of their higher values. Which if you think about it, even in technology, there’s very few B2B platforms and education as compared to any other field. You’ve got them all over the place, There’s even limited business to consumer platforms that are out there. Everything tends to operate in a silo. So the very culture of the organizations creates competition, competitiveness, and a lack of ability to collaborate and work together. So that just defines the nature of education and in general, so you’re right, I took a little bit of time personally, to look at other organizations that had gone through similar types of experiences and had the good fortune of being able to spend, actually a couple hundred hours interviewing CEOs of hospital systems that had consolidated and banks that had consolidated. I actually [spoke with] automotive dealerships and franchises that consolidated multiple franchises under a single organization. And, so from that, boy, there were just a lot of similarities. And, while we often think we’re unique, I think in many ways we are, but the reaction of people is pretty much the same. There are people that saw that within their organizations as an advantage. And there were people that were highly threatened by it. So going in, I knew pretty well, how, based on their experiences, how people were going to react, and they nailed it. They got it, right. That there was a group we’re going “It’s about time! Why has it taken us so long to solve these problems? Why are we wasting so much money? Why are we inefficient? Why are we duplicating services? Why are we competing with each other along the line?” And you’d have others going? “Well, you’re going to destroy our culture, you’re going to take away our identity. What about this program? What about that effort?” And it’s always been the top leadership that was the most protective of the status quo. Where the people working directly with students with employers or others going: “Thank goodness. You have no idea how hard it is to navigate and get services to people when we’ve got to navigate all these systems.” So, whatever you can imagine where the resistance and pushback came, you would be right. But I think what was a little bit even surprising, but not so much after I talked to others, was how our people within the organization we’re going, “Thank you for helping us be able to do a better job of working with students.” And our students overwhelmingly have been appreciative of it. Our surveys there said they immediately saw a benefit. Immediately. As we consolidated websites as we consolidated operations, their life became a lot easier from day one.

Tyler Jacobson  33:11

That is excellent. Like both topics that we discussed today, just focus on providing value for the students as well as the people that they will be serving, which is the employers and their families down the road. It has been an excellent conversation. I greatly appreciate your time and your input. And thank you for joining. 

Dr. Joe May  33:34

Hey, thanks, Tyler. Great to be here. Good to get to see ya. 

Tyler Jacobson  33:40

That’s all for today’s episode of LabChats. Be sure to subscribe so you’ll be notified when a new LabChats episode is posted each week. We’ll see you next time.


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