Air Date January 29, 2013

Our ProBoat Radio West host, Ann Avary, sits on the other side of the desk for this show, filling us in on a major grant received by Skagit Valley College. We start our conversation by finding out a little about what the grant covers.

“This is a consortium grant,” says Avary. “It’s a $20 million Dept of Labor Grant, affecting 10 colleges that are involved in aerospace training. The lead entity is Spokane Community College. The grant will run for three years, and we are now about half way through our involvement. The size of the consortium is unusual with 10 partners, she says, typically there may be only three or four.”

The actual application took place in April 2011, so several months passed before the award was made in October of 2011. “We started working together in January, though,” says Avary, “and this is typical. Once an announcement comes out, one school or organization may see the announcement well in advance of the grant deadline and start considering it.

“It’s like applying for a job or responding to an RFP,” she adds. “There’s no guarantee that you’re going to get it.”

For this grant, the consortium did not hire a professional grant writer. Each of the 10 colleges wrote their own section, but the lead college did have a professional available to put it all together including narratives about the deliverables, budget items, vendors, staffing, and all the costing out of each component.

“We all kind of know what things cost,” says Avary, “and we can get lulled into the believing this will be easy. But knowing what something costs is very different from the specific documentation that needs to be included in a federally funded grant. You’ll also need to be able to document the benefits of each piece of equipment of procedure that you plan to implement.”

Despite the early start, and dedicated effort, the consortium still had to make changes right up until the last minute.

“And then you get the grant. You’re euphoric. It’s a lot of money, and high visibility. But you don’t even know how much work you’re in for until you get that award letter,” says Avary. “But the benefits are tremendous. You can build capacity, handle more students, buy equipment that was previously prohibitively expensive, and – for us – we were able to keep our marine flavor but diversify into aerospace. Only four of the six schools in this consortium are offering composites training.”

For Avary as an administrator, what are the lessons learned?

“I think the biggest thing is ‘Don’t underestimate the amount of work it will take to be compliant with the terms of the grant and to be able to carry out the deliverables.’ Another lessons is this: ‘If you need help, go to the folks who have already received major grants and talk to them. Spokane Community College deserves nine gold medals for their leadership in this project.’

“Also, ‘There’s No Fee Money.’ Sure, you’re off to the races with your grant money, but there’s a tether on you. The reporting requirements are onerous, as they should be. Ask questions. Document everything. Keep thinking three to six weeks ahead of your normal calendar. Even with a very small grant, you’ll have a lot of reporting to do. Documentation is absolutely key. If you don’t keep good records, you’ll be in a world of hurt.”

What about budgeting your time?

“That’s critical,” says Avary. “Don’t think ‘we’ll find a way to do that.’ Build in money for an administrative person. The reality is that your own workload is going to step up, and you’ll be overseeing the new staff that your grant lets your hire. Another 25 percent of your time may get caught up in this, even if you do hire someone else. I’ve talked a lot with Steve Kitchin at N.E.I.T., and he’s said the same thing. Make sure you’ve got the time to do this. I’d also say, ‘Don’t stack grants.’ We were approached about another grant, and we simply could not take on any more. Don’t take on too much just because the opportunity is there.”

Is grant money becoming more available again?

“It kind of is. I know there’s another round of Dept of Labor grants coming out,” says Avary. “But again, if you’re already involved in a large complex grant, you may want to pass. Do the best job you can with the grant you have.”

What happens when the money runs out? How important is it to have a plan for continuing service after the grant period ends?

“One of the points of this grant is sustainability. When Sept 2014 hit, we have to be ready to continue the programs that we have used the grant to set up. The grant is allowing us to build capacity to be sustainable. What I’m seeing is that the granting entities what to see if you are building something that will last beyond the life of the grant. And it doesn’t matter who the granting entity is. They don’t want to fund something that has a finite life. They want their dollars to go as far as they can. You’re investing in capital equipment and hiring people, you want this program to last as long as possible.”

The new equipment at Skagit will be housed in the composites facility at Anacortes, and will be available to both marine and aerospace students. “We didn’t just open up a catalog,” says Avary. “We worked a lot of with industry partners, such as Boeing, Ingalls Shipbuilding, and other local composites manufacturers to find out what to buy. It’s important to build something that works for them.”

Skagit’s program recently moved into new quarters. Did that make a difference in their decision to go for the grant?

“Absolutely. The new location made all the difference in the world. We couldn’t have done it otherwise. Also, with the new location, we are serving many more students and have been able to expand the composites program. We didn’t have a lot of opposition to this location, and once we were up and running, the community became increasing supportive.”

The school is now an economic development driver for the community. “Now that the community and the state embrace the school, and we can combine that with industry support, the whole program becomes very powerful.

“Our industry partners, especially in the marine industry, are taking note, to be sure. Last fall in IBEX, one of the best sessions I went to was on Non-Destructive Testing, and those speakers made the point that the equipment is not limited to the marine industry. I took a lot of that information back to Skagit and we’ll be using it in our NDT program here, that that’s part of the grant.”

Can we use that as an IBEX promo? “Come to IBEX and you’ll get a $10 million grant!”

“Sure! And also look at the crossover opportunities. People who review grants want to know that the skill sets cover more than one industry, such as marine and aerospace.”

What about jobs for the graduates from these schools in the consortium?

“In aerospace right now, there are a lot of jobs. The companies all the way down the supply chain are hiring. And we’re seeing that in the marine industry, too, but there aren’t enough technically qualified people to fill these jobs just yet.”

What about salary?

“Now that really varies, and it depends a lot of location. Rural areas will not pay as much per hour as a metro areas. Competencies drive salary, too. It can be the difference between starting salaries.”

Is there really a skills gap? Or is it a salary gap? (See the ProBoat E-Training Blog article on this topic.)

“There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a skills gap. I think it’s more that there are not people available. I was on a call today where one of the people was discussing a local employer who was lamenting the fact that job applicants cannot pass the practical math exam. So, yes. It’s more the fact that there’s a skill’s gap than an unwillingness to pay a higher wage, although I know there are exceptions. I recommend that people go back into our ProBoat Radio archives and listen to our interviews with Joe Youcha and Heidi Boley.”

Both of those shows have been very popular with our listeners.

“One of the parts of our grant is developing new assessment tools,” says Avary. “The discussion of skills gaps is tired, but the need is there for the practical math skills. If you can’t do that, you simply can’t be competitive in the job market. Every time I talk to an employer one on one, that topic becomes part of the conversation.”

ProBoat E-Training is working on a survey about what skills employees are seeking, and math will definitely figure in that.

“Both Heidi and Joe taught me a lot,” says Avary. “I had not realized that kids in middle school really have no ‘re-do’ or remedial help in math, like they do in reading. I’ve also heard that kids in sixth grade already know when they are going to drop out because of their math and reading skills. How do we fix this? I’m clearly on the Heidi and Joe bandwagon. There has to be a way to fix this.”

Maybe we can write a grant.

“If that’s what you are thinking about, and you’re a group of employers or a trade association, I think you’ve got to be that specific. Identify the problem, address it, and explain how you are going to sustain it. And this entire issue around math is one of the most important ones going.”

And now you are one of the people that new applicants can contact for more information.

“Let me say, too, if you’re looking for a grant, do get partners. Don’t get everyone on board just to have a bunch of people, but make sure you have collaboration. Otherwise, you will not be competitive. You need to show cooperation, and you will need to have the right parties involved so the goals of the grant can be achieved.”

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