Rutgers University researchers are examining the economic impact of the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program in a multi-year study that eschews the usual metrics of return-on-investment calculations and student completion data.
Instead, as Michelle Van Noy, the principal investigator of The Hidden Innovation Infrastructure project explained in a recent interview, researchers are scanning the entire ATE program for economic development activities and taking a close look at community colleges’ ATE initiatives, the “innovation ecosystem or infrastructure” that ATE grants influence, and the interactions of ATE centers and projects with regional labor markets.
Van Noy, an assistant research professor and associate director of Education and Employment Research Center (EERC) at Rutgers in New Jersey, said the research project was planned before COVID, but that she hopes the findings will assist colleges deal with imperatives triggered by the pandemic. “I think the role for community colleges—in terms of economic development—is even more important now and being that anchor in the community that can spur job development, and create resilience and create innovation,” she said.
Looking Under the Hood of ATE Initiatives
Preliminary analysis of 1,999 ATE grantee abstracts led by Renée Edwards, a senior researcher at EERC, indicates that while most projects do not specify an explicit economic development focus, activities centered on developing a technician workforce to complement industry needs in the local area are a key focus. The research team plans to collect more in-depth data on projects that are involved in these activities to study how they impact regional economic development.
ATE principal investigators who would like to bring their economic development efforts to the researchers’ attention should contact Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org
The most ambitious project goal is a qualitative study of ATE-educated technicians at their workplaces and in the regional economy.
“It’s really in the qualitative work that we’re going to be able to hopefully measure some of those things better, in terms of the innovation ecosystem and workplace outcomes,” Van Noy said, adding the team hopes to capture “impacts on the workplace in terms of productivity and innovation, and what the technicians are actually doing at work.”
She explained: “What we saw as valuable is actually looking under the hood in terms of the actual workplace outcomes. That is something that is the most telling about where the program has its impacts: What do employers say about the skilled technician workforce? What does that mean when you have a skilled technician in the workplace? What are they able to do that adds value, that adds productivity, that adds innovation?
“In some ways I will say this is possibly one of the most challenging things I think we’ve laid out for ourselves, is trying to do that measurement. I think we have a team that’s really well poised to do that, but I think it’s something that has not been done a lot. But to me it’s really the crux of the issue about understanding the impact of education and technician education. What are the skills? And how do they practice them? How do technician education programs impact the broader innovation ecosystem within a region? And ultimately how do the skilled workforce and the innovation ecosystem ultimately contribute to the regional economy?”
Plans for Quantitative Analysis & Case Studies
Marilyn Barger, the executive director of the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center (FLATE) is co-principal investigator of the ATE-funded research project that is fully titled The Hidden Innovation Infrastructure: Understanding the Economic Development Role of Technician Education in the Changing Future of Work. (Award #2026262). FLATE, which is now part of the FloridaMakes Network, was funded for 15 years by NSF as an ATE Center.
Barger said she hopes the Hidden Innovation Infrastructure findings will add evidence that persuades employers that community colleges are “really good places to get the technician workforce they need today and will need in the future with accelerating use of automation and Industry 4.0 technologies.”
In addition to Edwards and Barger, the project team includes William F. Mabe, Jr., chief data scientist at Practical Data Lab, who will do quantitative analysis of data from various federal government sources; and Andrew Weaver, an assistant professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, who will conduct employer surveys.
The researchers plan to do case studies of ATE grants awarded to Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin; Daytona State College in Florida; Mesa Community College, Estrella Mountain Community College, and Pima Community College in Arizona; and Clark State College, Columbus State Community College, and Lorain County Community College in Ohio.