The Hidden Innovation Infrastructure: Understanding the Economic Development Role of Technician Education in the Changing Future of Work

Situated between the abstract knowledge of technology and its practical implementation in real world settings, technicians are essential to the functioning of the innovation economy and the rapidly changing labor market. They have an essential role in translating technology into practice and, through that translation process, discovering innovations that impact the concept, design, and use of technology. However, their role often goes unrecognized. While a great deal of research has focused on scientists and engineers in promoting innovation to spur economic development, scant attention has been paid to technicians and the programs that prepare people for these roles. For over 25 years, the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program has had far reach in developing the community college infrastructure for technician education in support of innovation in communities across the US.

Traditional approaches to measuring the impact of higher education on economic development focus on the research university, but much less often examine community colleges. While research and evaluation has documented ATE’s impact in terms of changes to college programs and more recently employment outcomes of graduates, research is needed on the economic development role of technician education and the ATE program. This research project takes a multi-faceted approach to conceptualizing and examining the economic development role of community college technician education and the ATE program in the context of the changing nature of work. The study’s guiding hypothesis is that ATE and community college technician education programs form an infrastructure that creates both a workforce of skilled technicians and an ecosystem of innovation. These two outcomes, when injected into the economy, increase workplace productivity and innovation, thus spurring regional economic development.

The project includes two main components: a national analysis of community college technician education and economic development, and in-depth regional case studies of technician education in manufacturing. The national analysis includes a review of current and past ATE-funded community college technician education programs and a quantitative analysis of data related to technicians, ATE, community college technician education, and economic development using existing national datasets. The in-depth case studies of manufacturing-sector technician education programs in colleges located in four regions of the country will be based on interviews with college faculty, staff, community partners, and local industry, and comprehensive surveys of local employers. 

This project is supported by The National Science Foundation.