With a $2 million infusion in funding to expand its STEM workforce programs, Los Angeles Mission College looks to create short-term programs to prepare more students for health care careers and fill in the gap of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers.
Mission College, born through the efforts of local activists in 1975, first held classes in office spaces throughout San Fernando and the northeast valley. The Sylmar campus continues to grow and is making strides to offer programs and curriculum that can offer pathways to STEM careers. More college students are needed to pursue STEM degrees and careers. A Pew Research Center study cited cost and time barriers as cited reasons young adults don’t choose STEM although it is crucial for a future job market.
This step is part of the college’s strategy to also assist in pandemic recovery — to provide training programs to students that will lead to relevant jobs. President Armida Ornelas said that these new programs are data driven to fill in gaps in the labor market, and one of the industries in the college’s service area where there are jobs available is health care.
While the new STEM programs are still upcoming, Mission College currently has certificates in biotechnology and have provisional approval from the state to offer a baccalaureate in biomanufacturing. The college also was given a $10 million grant last year to build an incubator biotechnology building on campus.
While such a building has not yet taken shape, biotechnology classes are taking place in the biotech room in the Center for Math and Science building. The college also boasts a high job placement rate for students who complete the biotechnology program.
“We have a 99 to 100 percent success rate for getting the jobs to our trainees,” said Chander Arora, program director of biotechnology. “We had 56 students who were interested in jobs; 55 of them were hired.”
Arora is a full-time professor at Mission College. She previously worked for Cedars Sinai and was a part-time professor at Los Angeles Valley College for 19 years. She attributed the program’s success to teaching students not only the knowledge and techniques they will need, but having them use those skills in a group project. The results of the project are presented publicly in an exhibition at the end of the semester.
The professor said that the project facilitates students to learn critical thinking, troubleshooting, how to do experiments, how to read the data and how to present it.
The program is such a success, Arora said that major companies, including Takeda Pharmaceuticals, will come on campus and interview students.
Arora worked to attain the program’s high job placement rate, after observing that companies weren’t hiring STEM graduates — despite their need for them, by teaching students the skills that said companies were seeking.
“I asked employers what is your Christmas wish list of an ideal employee,” she said. “You have so many job openings, we have so many graduates; something is disconnected. Those who are looking for jobs apply [to you] and they don’t even hear back from you. That’s how I started this work.”
The professor said that these kinds of STEM programs are in demand and employers are looking to fill the shortage of STEM workers.
“This is the modern era. We are really going into cell and gene therapy, into diagnostics,” Arora said. “Biotechnology is on the rise. Nothing else is rising as fast as biotechnology, if I may say.”
Although she won’t be teaching the classes herself, Arora hopes to extend that same level of success to the upcoming health care programs.
“We want Mission College to stand out as a training leader, an educational leader, and [for] people to come here and feel secure,” Arora said. “STEM careers are the way of the future, and we want STEM careers, not jobs, for our students.”
“[The STEM funding] allowed us to develop programs in the medical [field] such as medical assistants and phlebotomy and EKG [technicians] and LPN [licensed practical nurses],” Ornelas said. “In doing so, we’re able to create a curriculum, we’re able to work with faculty and provide professional development, we’re able to invest in equipment and we’re able to advertise these programs.”
Ornelas said that some of those programs are in their final approval phases and will soon be available to students. Programs for phlebotomy and EKG technicians will be ready to go come the fall semester, while the LPN program will probably take another year to get approved.
Although the $2 million was formally presented to the college by Congressman Tony Cárdenas with a ceremonial check presentation on July 7, the funding was effective at the beginning of the year. The money is a one-time grant that will be spent over the course of three years.
The funding isn’t just for students new to the STEM field. As Ornelas explained, part of the college’s pandemic recovery strategy is to invest in immigrant students.
“One of the goals of this grant is to provide ESL instruction for immigrant students that have a STEM background,” Ornelas said. “The other [goal] is that the short-term health career training programs are also structured in a way where they lead to a more long-term pathway if students want to continue and perhaps later get additional certificates or their associate’s [degree] or even transfer to a university.”
The president explained that it was the college’s idea to support non-English speaking, foreign-born STEM workers to support those members of the community.
“I think it’s important to really be intentional about being tuned in to who we serve,” she said. “Here in the northern San Fernando Valley, we’re really proud to serve all of our communities, including the immigrant communities, and if we can be particularly resourceful and innovative and bring in added resources to our potential immigrant students, then we’re right there front and center doing so.”
With the aim of bringing in more students into the college, the funding could also improve transfer rates and help communities get jobs they may sorely need.
“The immediate focus for this [funding] is to provide short-term training programs that get students employed sooner than later,” Ornelas said.