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2012 January 9 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Stressed Out

 AP Photo

Students work together to create an automotive computer circuit at Delta College in Michigan. College leaders say their institutions are      struggling to provide training in many high-tech, high-wage fields.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Stressed Out
Survey: High-Tech, High-Need Programs Strain Colleges
By Paul Bradley

Health sciences. Engineering technology. Information technology. Skilled trades.

As the country continues to slog its way out of the longest recession since World War II, education officials and policy makers agree that these are among employment areas rich with opportunity. Not only do thousands of job vacancies exist today, but thousands more will be created in the future.

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But filling all the jobs is no easy task. Training is expensive, requiring costly equipment that needs periodic updating. Becoming qualified for such a position can take years, not months. Talented, experienced faculty members are needed, as is an institutional commitment to long-term initiatives whose benefits might rest well beyond the horizon.

Community colleges, at the forefront of the nation’s workforce development efforts, are being called upon to train new workers to toil in these burgeoning fields and help displaced workers develop new skills.

But colleges across the country are feeling the strain in meeting the need, caught between shrinking public spending, increasing demand and growing pressures to devise short-term, non-credit training programs with quick and tangible payoffs.

“Unemployment more than doubled in most states from July 2007 to July 2009, and has stayed persistently high since then,” said Steven G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama. “With state tax receipts down, states have cut their community college operating budgets at the precise time of great need for the unemployed to be retrained.”

That dichotomy is at the heart of findings contained in “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: Challenges Community Colleges Face To Reach the Unemployed,” a new report based on a survey of 51 members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges and conducted by the Education Policy Center. Key findings of the report include:

  • Business leaders look to community colleges to train the workforce even as 35 states indicate that the recession has strained training capacity.

  • Available training funds from the federal Workforce Investment Act and other sources have been exhausted in 21 states.

  • Colleges are increasingly pressured to offer non-credit quick training.

  • State funding cuts limit growth in higher cost programs in high demand technology-based majors.

  • Displaced workers can get free tuition at community colleges in only four states.

“States and community colleges are working very hard in creative ways to help displaced workers, but the lack of resources appropriate to the task is clear,” said Janice N. Friedel, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University and a co-author of the report. “In Iowa alone, funding for workforce training has declined by 35 percent in recent years.”

The gap between aspirations and reality is especially acute in the nation’s largest states with the largest community college systems. State directors in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania all agreed that more money is needed to expand high-cost programs in areas such as health sciences and information technology.

“More funding is needed in the career programs that lead to higher wage jobs,” Friedel said. “The bulk of available jobs are in those high-tech fields. But many displaced workers need those basic skills.”

“The cost of that high-tech training is expensive. But we have not seen an increase in funding.”

The new report is the third of three based on the national survey, conducted last year and reaching officials in all 50 states, and the first to focus specifically on workforce development efforts at community colleges.

The need for such workforce training is acute. As of July 2011, only three states had unemployment rates of 5 percent or below, while 20 states had unemployment rates
of 9 percent or more, according to federal statistics.

The persistently high unemployment has increased pressure on colleges to create quick “jobs now” programs rather than longer-term programs that could lead to higher-wage jobs, the survey found. A 2010 iteration of the Education Policy Center survey asked state community college directors whether they felt pressure to create quick job training in non-credit areas; 17 respondents agreed, while 15 disagreed. In 2011, the responses had shifted significantly, with nearly 3 state directors in 4 in agreement.

“By a nearly 2:1 margin, respondents agreed that enrollment growth at their state’s community colleges has been greater in lower cost transfer programs than in higher-cost, career focused, for-credit programs,” the survey report said.

Some states are addressing their workforce development challenges by enlisting economic development partners.

In Louisiana, for example, the state since 2008 has provided $10 million a year to the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to address statewide workforce needs in collaboration with the state Workforce Commission. State law gives business and labor the chance to work with colleges to develop workforce education policy, programs and performance standards. The state is focusing on both upgrading the skills of incumbent workers and training new skills in fields such as the oil and gas industry and the allied health fields.

In New Jersey, the New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development coordinates the work between employers and the state’s 19 community colleges. The consortium works with current workers whose skills need updating as well as training new workers in growing fields, providing training in written and oral communications skills, computer skills, specialized certifications and industry-specific training. In 2009-10, the consortium worked with 556 employers and trained 12,020 workers.

Those efforts stand out because of the strains being experienced by community colleges, said report co-author Mark M. D’Amico, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“Workforce training is underfunded at many community colleges,” he said. “We must help our colleges fulfill their vital role in helping American workers obtain the skills they need to be economically competitive in a global economy.”

The report concludes that the strains on community colleges must be addressed if they are to fulfill their central role in workforce development.

“As policymakers and business leaders look to community colleges to train the next generation of workers and re-tool those seeking to re-enter the workforce, it is important to both recognize and understand the many constraints felt within the sector,” the report states. “Our findings reveal that state community college leaders believe high unemployment has strained the available workforce training capacity at community colleges in many states, as budget woes limit the development and maintenance of programs to prepare individuals for high-skill, high-wage jobs. If community colleges are to assist workers to achieve economic competitiveness and help the nation to economic recovery, the capacity strains. . .cannot remain unaddressed. Even as community colleges have long been known for persisting despite budget cuts and enrollment increases, we are left wondering whether the sector has neared its limits.”

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