The VIP council at the Shining Star Awards, recognizing excellence in their program, hosted by the Mexican Consulate in Fresno. Courtesy of VIP.

published on April 14, 2021 - 1:58 PM
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In recent years higher-education institutions in Fresno have attempted to evolve and expand to meet the demands of the Central Valley manufacturing industry.

According to the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance, the industry employs more than 100,000 residents of the Central Valley and accounts for $15 billion of the area’s gross domestic product.

Over the last decade, educational programs have made great strides to partner with the industry to create the kind of employees they need, said Mike Betts, CEO of the Betts Company in Fresno.

“The level of collaboration, cooperation and trusting relationships that have been built in this community over the last 5-10 years is off the charts,” Betts said. “It keeps building on itself to where we are doing remarkable things, it’s a community effort.”

One significant advance was the integration of dual credits for high school manufacturing programs at Fresno City College, said Robert Pimentel, FCC vice president of Educational Services and Institutional Effectiveness.

Before late 2015, FCC couldn’t offer dual enrollment to high school students because California state law required any course the college offered must be open to the public. High schools didn’t want their campus to be open to any member of the public in order to offer the courses, Pimentel said.

In October 2015 Assembly Bill 288 changed those rules, and instead of requiring students to spend a semester testing out of courses they took in high school, FCC could offer their courses with college credit for the high school students exclusively.

This change allows students to work towards an associates degree in high school and offers students a chance to take college courses for free, Pimentel said.

The change also allowed companies to partner more closely in ensuring workers with the skills they need are able to access the right education from a young age, Betts said.

“We try to offer a pathway between high school and university, or into the industry,” Pimentel said. “We are using that pathway to close equity gaps for students.”

Pimentel said while they have a pathway that transitions students from high school into the Lyles College of Engineering at Fresno State, FCC is working to better prepare students in core areas, like math, while they’re still in high school.

Once students get to Fresno State, some of them could join the Valley Industry Partnership (VIP). The program started in 1999 and bridges the gap between industry partners looking for interns and students studying computer engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering or industrial technology.

When Brissa Quiroz joined the program as director, she said the program wasn’t widely known among students and had fewer industry participants than she would have liked. 

“It is outstanding that this has been working for over 20 years, so when I took over the program it was like the best kept secret that shouldn’t be a secret,” Quiroz said. “That’s what I’m doing differently is promoting that we have amazing companies, amazing students and this works.” 

Quiroz’ goal was to add one or two new companies every year, but was able to add 10 new partners in less than two years, with three new companies this year alone, she said. VIP now hosts 27 local companies. 

The companies pay for a spot in the program, with a sliding scale based on the company’s size, and compete for interns like in a sports draft, Quiroz said. The students in the program are a small group who don’t only have a good GPA, but also excelled in industry-lead interview questions, Brissa said.

While companies could spend money to simply create a job posting, Quiroz said she acts as a matchmaker who makes certain companies get what they need in an intern. She said she also makes sure students aren’t going to companies that are too fast paced for their personalities. 

VIP also provides students with a year of paid internships at two local companies, time to explore the industry, honest feedback, mentorship and, more often than not, a job offer before they leave Fresno State, Quiroz said.

“This isn’t just an internship, it’s workforce development,” Quiroz said. “I look at the database for employment trends for engineering, we need to know what the trends are for just the VIP program companies and we educate our students on those needs.”

One of the big goals of VIP is to keep manufacturing professionals graduating out of Fresno State in the area by developing relationships with local companies, Quiroz said. Greater access to manufacturing work in the area can give young people from the Valley more social mobility, she said.

Even when students leave the area, both Quiroz and Betts said they’ve seen alumni of the program return to the area to take advantage of the industry.

For manufacturers in the Valley, VIP also allows them to access a pool of interns, which energizes their company and allows them to make progress on projects much quicker than they could on their own.

“Most of your manufacturing companies in the United States are small to medium sized, less than 100 people, and those companies don’t have a deep bench when it comes to research and development,” Betts said. “When we can have skilled interns coming in and increasing our bench size, it’s monumental.” 

Quiroz said VIP has become so successful in not only providing skilled interns, but also giving opportunities to women, first generation and minority engineering students that she has had to turn down a request from Tesla, because she didn’t have the capacity to fill their needs.

While FCC helps smooth pathways from K-12 to manufacturing jobs and VIP expands its company partnerships, Betts said education and the industry have to keep collaborating and involve themselves more in the community to continue progressing. 

“If we’re really serious about keeping this one of the best areas to manufacture, not only in California but in the country, for that matter the world, it’s the collaborative relationships doing it together that has made our career tech programs what they are today,” Betts said.

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