July 12, 2024

‘Niche’ offerings boost Newton’s DMACC campus

Newton offers several unique programs

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For more than a decade, every workday followed a familiar routine for Joe DeHart. He’d wake up early in the morning and start heading west to Ankeny. Rolling down Interstate 80 on his way to the DMACC campus, DeHart got used to the commuter lifestyle.

“Living here and driving to Ankeny, I’ve made that drive for years,” DeHart said.

Now, as the provost of DMACC’s Newton campus, DeHart is looking at turning that commute around, bringing unique programs to the Newton campus in hopes of attracting students who are willing to head out on the highway in search of a brighter future. Several programs offered at the Newton campus are unique to DMACC, and DeHart said he’s hopeful students will seek out the Newton campus for an educational experience that isn’t available anywhere else. While offering a traditional liberal arts education remains the school’s “bread and butter” DeHart said the career academy program offered at the campus, as well as the career orientated and technical offerings available at Newton’s DMACC campus have made the school a leader in its field.

“They receive a one year certificate and they have something that would be of value in the workforce,” DeHart said.

Career Academy

More than 170 high school students attend DMACC’s career academy program at the Newton campus, where they learn a variety of hands-on skills in the automotive, welding, culinary arts and construction trades. Students from school districts across Jasper County participate in the program, which gives high school seniors the opportunity to finish their first year of a two-year program while they’re still in high school. The cost of that first year is covered by the school district, something DeHart said gives students a leg up on the competition. As the economy has improved with unemployment dropping to 2.8 percent statewide, DeHart said employers are more willing than before to take a chance on training employees, but workers that get training at DMACC first will have a better opportunity to make more money when they start their careers.

“When they complete the program they’ll be able to go in as a trained welder and earn a higher wage,” DeHart said.

Court Reporting Program

As employers across Iowa look to fill positions in the skilled trades, DeHart said DMACC has been focused on creating programs that help students transition into careers where they can start earning immediately. DeHart said DMACC is always looking for niches where they can meet the needs of students and provide employers with a trained workforce to meet their needs; that’s the mission of a community college, DeHart said. When the AIB College of Business in Des Moines closed its doors in the summer of 2016 DMACC decided to pick up the court reporting program, the only program of its kind in the state of Iowa. DeHart said administrators at DMACC decided to locate the program in Newton because the campus had enough available space, and they quickly realized that students would be willing to commute to Newton in order to receive the training.

Patti Ziegler, professor and Department Chair of DMACC’s court reporting department is one of the teachers who made the move from AIB. On Thursday, Ziegler said the program fills a unique need in the state, where there is a desperate shortage of court reporters. The two-year program, which requires students to type at a speed of 225 words per minute with a 95 percent accuracy rate, has brought students from all across the state to Newton. According to Zeigler, the program is the only one available in a five-state area. Some of Zeigler’s students have even moved to Newton to participate in the program, and many commute in from Des Moines. Graduates can earn a starting salary of $50,000 a year, and Ziegler said she hears from prospective employers every day who are looking to network with students in an attempt to fill open positions. Out of the eight students who graduated from the program last year, Ziegler said seven are now employed.

“That’s really the purpose of a community college, to serve the needs of the area,” Ziegler said.

Many of the students in the program have some previous college experience, several already have a four-year degree. Court reporting is a high tech skill, and many have already learned the traits that make a successful court reporter, Ziegler said. Some students need extra time to master the speed needed to pass the certification tests and the class puts demands on students akin to a full-time position.

“It’s almost a full-time job, there are so many things that can get in the way of their practice,” Ziegler said.

For students who can pass the required speed and accuracy test, a world of opportunities awaits after they’ve finished their class at DMACC. Zeigler said she’s constantly inundated with requests from states desperate to find court reporter candidates, and with students taking part in a mandatory internship, they have numerous opportunities to network within their field. In the hallway outside Zeigler’s classroom, a bulletin board is overflowing with job offers. Initially, Ziegler said she was concerned that moving the program from Des Moines to Newton might discourage students from participating, but she’s been amazed at the response from students.

“I think we thought it might be a barrier at first, we thought maybe students wouldn’t want to drive here, but we’ve had so many students move here,” Ziegler said.

Accelerated Nursing Program

Students in the court reporting program aren’t the only ones commuting to Newton’s DMACC campus from the Des Moines metro area. The school’s nursing program has had a steady influx of Des Moines residents making the drive to Newton, and now that program is switching over to an accelerated program, Alex Thompson, the program chair of the nursing department at DMACC’s Newton campus, said he’s heard of even greater interest.

“There’s been a lot of interest in our accelerated program,” Thompson said. “We wanted to do it to differentiate ourselves from the metro campuses and to address the nursing shortage.”

Under the accelerated program, students will forgo their summer vacations to receive their degrees as Registered Nurses in only 17 months, rather than the standard two years. Thompson said the moves comes after student surveys indicated there was substantial interest in the program, and so far, Thompson said he’s seen signs suggesting the program will have no trouble filling its 24 open slots this fall. Right now Thompson estimated that half of the students in the program are Jasper County residents, with the rest commuting in from the metro area.

“There’s been quite a bit of interest, we’re pleased to be able to service that demand,” Thompson said. “Anything we can do to create nurses for this area, we want to do to meet the demand.”

A statewide shortage of qualified nursing candidates means the job market for nurses is strong, and Thompson said starting salaries for RN’s range from $23-25 an hour. There’s “ample opportunity” for graduates Thompson said, with the program reporting full employment following graduation.

“Before they graduated and got their licenses more than half of our students had a job waiting for them,” Thompson said.

Like Ziegler, Thompson said the nursing program has seen an increase in the number of second career students, many of whom are looking for a fresh start in an in-demand marketplace. He’s also seen more and more students coming straight out of high school to participate in the program, a sign that interest is increasing in the trades. No matter where students are at in their educational journey, Thompson said he’s always in favor of having nurses continue their education after they’ve graduated. With an associates degree students can begin working on their bachelor’s degree, something Thompson strongly recommends.

“We love to be able to get them in here, get them working, we always encourage all of our students to continue their education,” Thompson said.

In addition to fast-tracking their education Thompson said students also have unique opportunities they can take advantage of during a summer program. Without competition from other programs it’s easier for students to take part in their clinicals, interning in local hospitals. Students in the program typically do their clinicals in Newton, Knoxville and Grinnell, but the summer session will open up different possibilities for students, Thompson said.

“There’s more opportunities for clinicals, there’s more flexibility, there’s been more interest than usual,” Thompson said.

As DMACC administrators look to fill niche markets, DeHart said there’s still more opportunities for the Newton campus to create programs unique to central Iowa. While both the Ankeny and Newton campus offer a culinary program DeHart said administrators at Newton’s DMACC campus are looking at transitioning the Newton program to focus specifically on baking. The move would require adding some additional equipment, and it would potentially mean that students in Newton’s culinary program would need to drive to Ankeny to finish their education, but DeHart said he’s seen plenty of evidence that students are willing to commute to reach their educational goals.

“If it’s a program we don’t offer, they’ll stay in Newton the first year and then drive to Ankeny the second year,” DeHart said. Instead of having two programs 30 miles apart maybe we can have a baking program here.”

DMACC functions an integral partner in the local community, DeHart said. Working with employers, they identify needs in the workforce and work with students to reach their educational goals. Offering unique services and programs at the Newton campus creates a magnet effect that will draw in residents to DMACC’s sprawling Newton campus. DeHart said he’s hoping to continue developing the former Maytag facilities that were donated to the school, with an eye towards creating a work/live/play environment. DeHart cited the Spaulding Lofts in Grinnell, a turn of the century automobile manufacturing plant reimagined as loft style living. Bringing a similar concept to Newton is entirely possible DeHart said.

“It’s been done here before,” DeHart said.

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or ddolmage@newtondailynews.com