There is a misconception about the typical college student. The typical student is not taking 12–16 credits per semester, with their educational goals being the only significant focus of their lives. Yes, some students do fit this picture, but most students are part-time, working while in school, and have family responsibilities, as well. At least, this is the reality for most community and technical college students. At Blackhawk Technical College in Rock County, Wisconsin, about 1,875 of the College's students are part time, which translates into 78 percent of the total student population. The average age of Blackhawk's part-time students is 27.
Given this reality, how does a food safety training program help students achieve their educational goals and make it to graduation? How do employers find and retain highly trained employees? How do we meet students where they are, and bring them forward with new skills and new knowledge? The answer to all three of these questions is to make training more flexible and, therefore, more accessible. In doing so, we help develop and train the next generation of food safety professionals.
The answer for Blackhawk Technical College (BTC) and the food manufacturers that it supports was to design as flexible of a degree program as possible. BTC started its Food Lab program in 2017 in response to the needs of local employers, since there were no training options in the area and because existing programs in nearby locations were designed for the limited number of "traditional" college students. Employers in the area were losing future employees because they were moving or seeking degrees in areas of study that were offered more locally.
From the beginning, the industry partners who helped design the program strongly suspected (and time would prove them right) that providing flexible, supportive learning for a range of potential students is how they could source qualified employees. At the same time, the administration at BTC supported programs becoming as flexible in their course delivery as possible. What flexible delivery means for students in the BTC Food Lab program is that all courses are delivered online, or by a hybrid flexible laboratory.
"Flexible lab delivery is really the heart of how we can get any student, with any crazy work or family schedule, through the program. Our lab is open at different times of the morning, afternoon, and evening throughout the week, and some Saturday morning hours, as well. Any student can find a time to come to campus and complete the hands-on training they need to be a skilled employee," said Kathi Winker, a faculty member of the program. "We are committed to training future food safety professionals who might otherwise lose out on a college education."
Industry partners support the Food Lab training program in other ways, as well, such as the Food Lab scholarship program supported by the Foreign Type Cheesemakers Association, which has helped multiple students advance through the program. There is much discussion happening about recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and how the pandemic affected industry and education. For BTC's Food Lab program, because of the flexibility built in from the beginning, the program weathered that time better than most, continuing to enroll and graduate excellent students.
Program student and working food safety professional, Jonah Levia, said of the BTC program, "As a non-traditional student who essentially took a 25-year-long 'gap year,' attending classes regularly was anxiety-inducing for me. However, throughout my time at Blackhawk, using the [flexible lab] option was key in my success in returning to college. I was able to attend my lab classes around my work schedule and still had plenty of time to ensure the rest of my classwork was done. Having the [flexible lab] option for most of my classes helped me maintain a good relationship with my instructors, allowing me to keep them in the loop with any issues I may have had."
Another program student and working food safety professional, Melinda Needham, said, "The convenient hours of the flexible lab at BTC helped me further my education, no matter how demanding my school, family, and work schedule became."
Bjorn Unseth, yet another program student and working food safety professional, commented, "I really enjoy this program. With having a family of four and working full time, I would not have the time to go to class at a specific time during the day. This has made it possible to get my work done at my own pace, within reason. This allows me to either work ahead and/or get things done when I have the time. I am extremely happy with the professors and the time they give to get assignments completed. They also understand my busy schedule and have done many things to make sure that I still succeed. I would recommend this course to anyone that has a hectic lifestyle. Without the [flexible lab], I simply would not be able to get this great education."
With input from their industry partners through an advisory committee, the BTC Food Lab program plans to continue providing a flexible, high-quality education and, therefore, high-quality future employees to small and large food processors in the Monroe and Janesville, Wisconsin and northern Illinois areas.