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).

The growing use of lower-paid, less-experienced adjuncts has been controversial in higher education, and students paying full-fare tuition at a prestigious university may indeed have a right to protest if most of their classes are taught by graduate students. But the use of adjuncts in community colleges makes perfect sense when it comes to job-specific skills. While adjunct positions in subjects such as English or math usually require at least a master's degree, adjuncts who teach courses in medical billing or electrical circuitry can be hired based on their work experience rather than their academic degree.

Right now, community colleges around the country are hiring adjuncts in a number of technical fields. Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland has openings for instructors to teach noncredit classes in electrical and mechanical systems and basic carpentry and plumbing skills as part of its Center for Workforce Solutions. Houston Community College has dozens of adjunct faculty listings on its Web site, including opening in accounting, medical billing, property management, QuickBooks and chemical engineering.

Of course, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you're an effective teacher. Most community colleges, rightfully, prefer to hire adjuncts with some teaching experience, so you'll increase your chances of being hired if you can show you have experience training workers or taking on a leadership role in professional associations.

While being an adjunct can be a good way to earn some extra spending money, it's hardly a get-rich-quick scheme. Laramie County Community College in Wyoming, for example, pays adjuncts $625 to $675 per credit hour. Columbus State Community College in Ohio, which is hiring adjuncts for restaurant management, automotive technology, HVAC and architecture courses, pays $46.30 an hour (which includes a certain amount of nonclassroom prep work). At Broward College in Florida, adjuncts are paid a flat $1,800 to $2,000 for a semester of teaching.

Opportunities are also available through continuing education programs, which are offered to seniors and others in the community who aren't pursuing a degree. Here, experience running your own business can make you an in-demand expert, whether you're teaching a course in entrepreneurship, motivating employees or other business topics (you can often create your own customized topic).

For a small business to grow, it must have access to well-trained employees who can hit the ground running. Given the right support and resources, your local community college may be molding its students into those star employees of the future.

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