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Community Colleges: Where the Workers Come From

CHICAGO ( MainStreet) -- The dizzying increase in college tuition has opened a debate about whether higher education really pays off. What's not debatable is that many jobs do require specialized training beyond a high school degree. And that training includes technical skills that aren't taught at Harvard or Yale, such as how to process paperwork at a busy medical practice, or troubleshoot a robotic arm on an automated assembly line.

Economists from the New York Fed estimate that up to 1 million jobs are going unfilled in the U.S. -- despite high unemployment -- because qualified, appropriately trained applicants cannot be found.

Community colleges are being newly acknowledged as a critical step in the transition from student to worker.

What's the best hope for resolving this so-called "labor mismatch"? The humble community college. Community colleges' main selling point has always been their affordability and flexibility compared with four-year institutions. Now they are being acknowledged as a critical step in the transition from student to worker.

President Barack Obama has made community colleges a focus of his education strategy, and he has spoken at a number of colleges to make that commitment clear. As part of his 2013 budget, he proposed an $8 billion Community College to Career Fund to facilitate programs that train students for specific jobs.

Whether that spending will actually be approved is up in the air, thanks to the notoriously gridlock-prone Congress. Community colleges have also been hit hard by state budget cuts, limiting their ability to invest in new, high-tech facilities that would give students state-of-the-art training.

While awaiting more public funding, colleges have been working with the private sector to get students career-ready. The Gap (GPS), for example, has expanded its partnerships with community colleges in seven metro areas; 5% of its hires last year were community college grads. Such initiatives can also work for smaller companies, especially those in technical fields that struggle to find adequately-trained workers. Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich., for example, works with 150 local businesses to design specialized training programs, many aimed at unemployed former auto workers.

Community colleges may also offer opportunities in the classroom for business owners with high-demand skills. Technical training is almost always provided by part-time, uncontracted teachers known as adjuncts (as opposed to full-time professors, who get benefits and are usually required to have a Ph.D. in their field).

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