Obama to promote job training at community college

Posted Feb. 13, 2012, at 8:28 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2012, at 2:16 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wants community colleges and businesses to work together to train 2 million workers in high-growth industries, and on Monday will request $8 billion to create a fund to encourage the effort.

Obama’s plan, to be spelled out at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va., is called the “Community College to Career Fund,” the White House said. It would seek to train workers within areas such as health care, transportation and advanced manufacturing, and would be administered by the Education and Labor departments.

The proposed fund is part of a new budget Obama is sending to Congress. It aims to achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade by restraining government spending and raising taxes on the wealthy. In an election year with a gridlocked Congress, nearly every aspect of the budget will face tough scrutiny.

A key component of the community college plan would institute “pay for performance” in job training, meaning there would be financial incentives to ensure that trainees find permanent jobs — particularly for programs that place individuals facing the greatest hurdles getting work. It also would promote training of entrepreneurs, provide grants for state and local government to recruit companies, and support paid internships for low-income community college students.

“These investments will give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers where people learn crucial skills that local businesses are looking for right now, ensuring that employers have the skilled workforce they need and workers are gaining industry-recognized credentials to build strong careers,” the White House said in a statement.

In Maine, the state transitioned its existing technical college system to a community college system in 2002, and the move has proven popular. More than 18,500 students were enrolled in community colleges last fall, up from just over 10,000 students in 2002. Some 93 percent of community college graduates either land jobs or continue their education somewhere else when they graduate.

But while state appropriations for the Maine system have risen since 2008, due to increasing enrollment, the per-student funding has dropped. In 2008, state funding for the community college system was at $51.9 million. Since then, funding has increased to $54.9 million projected for fiscal year 2013. In that same time period, the per-student appropriation has dropped from $3,752 to $2,935 in the current year.

Maine’s community college and state leaders have said the system plays a critical role in filling open jobs, and training workers to take on a variety of positions, from health are to high-tech manufacturing.

Even as the United States struggles to emerge from the economic downturn, there are high-tech industries with a shortage of workers. And it is anticipated there will be 2 million job openings in manufacturing nationally through 2018, mostly due to baby boomer retirement, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. The catch is that these types of jobs frequently require the ability to operate complicated machinery and follow detailed instructions, as well as some expertise in subjects like math and statistics.

As costs at four-year colleges have soared, enrollments at community colleges have increased by 25 percent during the last decade and now top more than 6 million students, according to the American Institutes for Research. People with a one-year certificate or two-year degree in certain career fields can earn higher salaries than those with a traditional college degree, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the center at Georgetown University.

Mark Schneider, the former U.S. commissioner of education statistics who now serves as vice president at the American Institutes for Research, said there’s no doubt that high-tech companies need skilled workers. But he said there are challenges with leaning heavily on community colleges. Many students enter community colleges lacking math skills. The sophisticated equipment needed for training is expensive, and there’s little known about the effectiveness of individual community colleges programs across the country, he said.

“We need measures of how well they are training their students, how well their students are being placed in the job market, and … are they making money?” Schneider said. “We need to track that really, really carefully. And, we need to make all that information available to students before they sign on … and before taxpayers subsidize all of this.”

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