By Shalin Jyotishi, Forbes
The Biden administration has launched a new workforce development funding program to help people, including those at community colleges, gain skills for emerging jobs in fields like AI, biotechnology, quantum science and new areas of advanced manufacturing and semiconductor.
Administered as a grant competition by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency that supports research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering, the Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program will provide $30 million to fund partnerships between workforce development entities and organizations with expertise in emerging technologies.
The ExLENT program is housed within the NSF’s Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) arm which launched earlier this year to help translate federal investments in research and development into new technologies, startups and jobs that benefit communities and support economic development.
The program will fund 25 to 35 partnerships in amounts up to $1 million amounts given over three years to support “experiential learning” opportunities in emerging technology fields.
The NSF describes experiential learning as including internships, externships, apprenticeships, co-op experiences, project-based learning and other work-based learning programs that could either expose more people to emerging technology fields, help them gain the necessary skills to obtain jobs in those fields, or both.
The funding can be used to support learning opportunities targeted at adults or youth, regardless of whether they are currently students at an accredited college or university.
Organizations can apply for funding from ExLENT to support three kinds of experiential learning programs that cater to people with varying STEM skill levels:
Explorations Track: Provides participants with no prior STEM experience with an experiential learning opportunity that builds interest, motivation, and knowledge in an emerging technology field and inspires them to explore pathways to careers in these areas.
Beginnings Track: Provides participants with a limited STEM experience an experiential learning opportunity to gain more experience to pursue a career in an emerging technology field.
Pivots Track: Provides current professionals in any field with an experiential learning opportunity that equips them with the necessary skills to pivot into careers in emerging technology fields.
Emerging Technology Training at Community Colleges
While some community colleges obtain workforce training funding through NSF’s Advanced Technological Education program, four-year universities historically win the bulk of NSF grants that fund graduate and undergraduate-level STEM education and training.
That may be changing. As shared in an interview for New America, the inaugural head of NSF’s TIP Directorate, Erwin Gianchandani, emphasized the importance of community colleges connecting to innovation economies and offering pathways to jobs in emerging technology fields, especially the ones NSF is hoping to promote through its research funding.
In an email from the NSF announcing the ExLENT program, Gianchandani stated that “this program acknowledges that traditional STEM education pathways are not by themselves sufficient to address the large workforce shortages that the nation faces today in emerging technology areas.”
Emerging technology fields will almost always need universities to prepare skilled talent such as PhD-level scientists and engineers, but many fields require a technician-level workforce that is well suited to a community college-level education.
Community colleges offer many of the learning opportunities described by NSF through their degree programs but especially their workforce development and continuing education arms.
Workforce training programs for emerging technology fields are still rare at community colleges, but more colleges are beginning to respond to this new need.
Intel’s CEO Pat Gelsinger, a community college graduate himself, has publicly advocated for an expanded role of community colleges in emerging technology training, and Intel has partnered with the American Association of Community Colleges to expand AI workforce training programs at community colleges in all 50 states by next year.
So far, the programs range from two-year degrees to bootcamps, short courses, and K-12 level immersion programs that could be good candidates for ExLENT funding.
Research by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology has also called for more for AI education at the community college level, citing colleges’ workforce development expertise and the fact that they enroll a more diverse student population than most 4-year universities. An explicit mandate of ExLENT is to help diversify emerging technology fields.
Federally Supported Pathways to the Future of Work
ExLENT could follow in the footsteps of other federal programs that have successfully supported community college partnerships that lead to jobs in emerging technology fields.
Pima Community College in Arizona recently launched the first certificate program for autonomous vehicle truckers with TuSimple, the first autonomous vehicles company to go public in the United States. The partnership was supported in part by a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s University Transportation Centers Program.
And in Tennessee, Pellissippi State Community College partnered with the federally-funded Oakridge National Laboratory and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation to offer enhanced advanced manufacturing training. The partnership U.S. Department of Defense’s Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment program.
Since NSF’s ExLENT program hopes to connect workforce development organizations with emerging technology experts, it could be just the catalyst community colleges need to create or expand their partnerships with employers, research universities, technology-based economic development organizations, federally-funded research and development centers, and other entities focused on developing and deploying emerging technologies.
NSF has launched a newsletter for ExLENT and will host an introductory webinar for prospective applicants on November 1st, 2022. Initial applications will be due in March 2023.