With a goal of helping area manufacturers close the "skills gap," Eastern Iowa Community Colleges is launching a new degree in engineering technology in the spring.

At a news conference Tuesday, Chancellor Don Doucette said the associate in applied science degree will help the college district meet the increasing need in the region for workers with middle skills technology. The program was created with a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

He said the program "is a year in the making" with the college's leadership developing the curriculum with input from area businesses and industry, four-year universities and Iow@Work. Engineering technology will better describe the skills the students are gaining for the manufacturers looking to hire them, he said. "Our focus will be on one core program that meets multiple needs ..." 

The degree builds off of many of the existing programs offered at the district's Blong Technology Center in Davenport and its other campuses in Muscatine and Clinton.

"This is an upgrade of the existing programs," Doucette said. "All those programs contain a core set of skills for engineering technology. This will be a signature program."

Wayne Merrell, the district's Department of Labor grants projects director, said the degree will be available at all three campuses and will focus on the areas of automation, electromechanical and process control. The district is working on agreements to ensure the two-year program is transferable to area four-year schools.

College officials said the program will produce technicians trained for positions in civil engineering, electronics engineering, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, plant systems, robotics and computer engineering.

"Our goal in general is to widen that STEM pipeline," Doucette said. He made the analogy that "this is the nurse practitioner to the family practice doctor — the engineering technician to the engineer."

In addition, the district received $800,000 as part of a $13 million U.S. Department of Labor grant to Iowa's community colleges to build capacity in advanced manufacturing. Through that grant, the district was selected to develop a curriculum to be shared with the state's 15 community colleges. Merrell said the process will include developing classes, course materials and marketing information for each college to build a program.

While the types of manufacturing skills differ across the state, he said they all face the same problem — a shortage of skilled workers.

"By the year 2018, there will be a deficit of 6,672 skilled workers in Iowa alone," Merrill said.

Alcoa Davenport Works spokesman John Riches said the new degree is another example of the strong partnership Eastern Iowa Community Colleges has had with area manufacturers.

"This will address the skills gap we see going forward with Alcoa and other companies across the Quad-Cities," he said.

Riches, who participated in the announcement, said that for the past several years, the Riverdale plant has had to expand its reach to as far as Detroit and Georgia to fill some of its crafts positions, including mechanics and electricians.

According to Merrell, the majority of the $2.5 million grant is being used to develop curriculum and hire staff, including career navigators who will work with individual students and help prepare them for placement. Much of the training will be on programmable logic controllers, which he called "the brains of automated systems."

"Somebody has to develop those systems that guide the robots ... that's what our students will learn to do, guide and program the systems," he said.