Technical and vocational education - medical technology

Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology Shares Benefits of Technical and Vocational Education

As the rising cost of college becomes a greater concern, more and more students are looking to technical and vocational education programs to jump-start their careers. Increasing demand for skilled workers in construction, medical technology, or automotive technology also means that the benefits of a traditional 4-year degree may not be as practical as the skills a 2-year associates degree can provide.

To get to the bottom of this trend toward technical and vocational education, guest host Esin Sile, CEO of MindBridge Partners interviewed Tony Benoit, President of Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology about how his school is trying to fill the skills gap.

Interview with Esin Sile and Tony Benoit (FULL TRANSCRIPT)

ETT: Good morning Tony we’re so glad to have you here this morning. Tony Benoit is the President of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology here in Boston and my name is Esin Sile. I am the CEO and co-founder of MindBridge Partners and we are guest hosting a podcast on EdTech Times today with Tony. Good morning again, Tony.

Tony Benoit: Good morning Esin. It’s great to be here.

ETT: To start off, tell us a little bit about Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

Tony Benoit: Well BFIT is a private, non-profit college here in Boston that educates city kids in places them into great jobs in growth industries. It’s very accessible and affordable and we help students achieve success at three times the rate of other two year colleges in Massachusetts.

ETT: That’s quite impressive. And obviously you are in a very important field. So what are the primary career fields that you focus on?

Tony Benoit: Well we focus on fields that are in high demand, typically areas with more job openings than people to fill them and these are also fields that are growing quite rapidly in Massachusetts. We have programs in a broad range of technology fields, from automobiles to medical technology, computers, to eyeglasses. We have a new program in construction management and we are launching a robotics track within our electronics program. The jobs of the future will require technical know how, of course, although specifics are often hard to predict. But people who learn the fundamentals of science and technology now will have the opportunity to learn and to grow with changes in technology. Even highly technical jobs will require the ability to speak, to write, and to listen. You need to be able to analyze and solve problems. Like today, future jobs will depend more and more on workers abilities to provide good service, both to customers and to coworkers.

ETT: Yes, and clearly there is a big argument right now going on with the mid-skills jobs, so you are very much serving in that field. And do you think that these are the most in demand careers of the future?

Tony Benoit: Well, it’s hard to say what will be the most in demand but these are certainly areas that are [growing], where there will be plenty of opportunity and they’re also things that will be critical to the economy.

ETT: Oh absolutely. What do you think that the perceptions are around vocational education?

Tony Benoit: I would say that they’re still not as good as they should be. Vocational education has been very much undervalued for the last 50 years. It’s sometimes seen as less rigorous than other forms of education and there are still people who believe it’s a limited pathway. The reality though is that vocational education is very rigorous and demanding. You need to learn both the technical skills as well as general skills, such as communication, critical thinking. You need to learn how to find and evaluate information, how to act as a professional. You need to know how to work with a team. You can get through some education just training your brain and vocational education though you need to train both your head and your hands.

ETT: Wow, that’s true. Do you do at BFIT anything trying to change this perception in the Boston area specifically?

Tony Benoit: For example, I have conversations like this and we are often talking to others. In many ways though, it’s the results of what we’re doing that speak for themselves, that when our students get out and get great jobs, those employers say, ‘That’s the right educational pathway.’

ETT: And that is a strong testament.

Tony Benoit: Absolutely.

ETT: And obviously, you know, one of the arguments right now in higher ed is the rising cost of college education and the debt crisis and they’re having calls for alternative forms of post-secondary education, as you very well know. How do you think higher ed will evolve in the next decade or so to accommodate these changes?

Tony Benoit: Well, higher education needs to become more cost-effective, there’s no doubt about that. And what I mean by that is students need to get good value back for their investment, both of money and of time. Many people who work in higher ed are uncomfortable with this, but more and more students will insist on getting prepared and placed into jobs, not simply educated as an end in itself. There’s going to continue to be a wide range of ways to learn but some of them will only be for the people who can afford it. Others will opt for lower cost, greater convenience and certainly educational technology will be part of that. But some of the best value comes from a low-tech high-touch approach. Learn and earn programs also will become more and more common.

ETT: And then how is Benjamin Franklin playing a role in this?

Tony Benoit: Well, this is really right in the middle of what we’re doing. We go out of our way to see that students are getting their money’s worth. And we also want to make sure that their time is well spent. We work closely with each student to give the right support and preparation at each step of the way. It’s equally important however, that BFIT has partnerships with the companies that hire its graduates. These employers help us to know what it is that students need to learn. We want our graduates to be valuable immediately on the job, on day one. We’re also continually reevaluating what approaches to teaching and learning are most effective.

ETT: And there seems to be, because you’re mostly offering two-year associate degrees at Benjamin Franklin, and there’s still a little bit of stigma if you will attached to associate degrees, they seem to be undervalued, even though there is a big growth in those industries. Can you talk about some of the benefits obtaining an associate degree opposed to a bachelor’s degree?

Tony Benoit: Sure. You’re right about that. There is still, I would say a prejudice against two-year education. Many associates degrees, particularly those that focus on a technical field or some other area that’s in high demand in the economy do return great value. You can earn it in two years or less, so you can move into a new job sooner. You also only have to pay for half as many years of college and that’s often at a school that’s less expensive to start with. The fastest growing segments of our employment market here in Massachusetts are for jobs that require more than high school, but not necessarily a full four years of college and many people don’t realize that national data reveals that those who earn an associate degree in a technical area get paid more than the average person who’s just earned a bachelor’s degree in any area. BFIT prepares graduates for lifelong learning, and we find it’s more rewarding to enter the next phase of your education, where you go after your two-year degree, when you already have one college degree in your back pocket and you’ve got a good job that’s paying the bills. And really the best thing is many employers will pay to send you back to school.

ETT: And one of the other issues that is very much being discussed right now is about underserved groups, obviously. How is BFIT working to level the playing field for the underserved population, such as the women, minorities with low-income households?

Tony Benoit: Sure, I’d say the key to that is that BFIT is providing access to the good-paying jobs that are in high demand, we’re a gateway to those fields. But we also provide coaching and support to help people have a good experience in college, even if maybe they didn’t have such a good experience before they got to college. And many people, particularly those in the underrepresented groups you talked about, have not been advised to pursue these fields. Sometimes people are, I don’t think they’re trying to keep them out, but they don’t think about encouraging them as much as some other students. We go out of our way to encourage them to come in. We seek them out and tell them about the opportunity. Our classes are small, average class size is 11. So we can work very closely with each individual. We really believe in getting to know who each student is and working to their particular strengths. We want them to be successful with us, but then also to be confident as they move into the workforce.

ETT: Yes, thank you so much Tony. So this morning we had Tony Benoit, president Benjamin Franklin Institute and talked about really important issues such as vocational training, underserved populations, and the growth of associate programs and how it relates to the economy. Thank you for your time Tony, it was a great pleasure speaking with you.

Tony Benoit: Thank you for having me Esin. The pleasure was mine.