As we emerge from the recent recession, we are discovering a changed economy, one in which sectors have vanished, jobs have disappeared, and in which new growth will require more education and different skills. There are nearly 15 million Americans that are still out of work and are unable to find opportunities with the skills which once earned them a living. As such, many of these displaced workers are going back to school to acquire new skills that better match the demands of the economy, according to an article by Jamie P. Merisotis and Stan Jones called “Degrees of Speed.”

According to the article, new research by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University shows that the economy that has emerged from the recession is one where most new jobs will require a postsecondary education. Of the 47 million jobs that will come online over the next decade, 30 million will require postsecondary credentials. Roughly half of those will only require a one-year certificate or two-year degree.

Given this reality, many people are looking to local community colleges, which have seen enrollment rates surge since 2008. Community colleges offer a viable alternative for workers interested in getting back into the workforce, however many obstacles remain.

From the article:

The unemployed need to earn a degree quickly, so they can get back into the workforce. But…it takes the average community college student five years to complete a two-year associate’s degree, and four years to earn a one-year certificate… Part of the reason is that many students…begin community college with such academic skill deficits that they have to take remedial classes before beginning their college-level coursework. A bigger reason, however, is that most [community colleges] see themselves as academic institutions first and workforce-training centers second…Even students headed for job-oriented degrees—in, say, landscape technology—must pass an array of general education courses in math, English, science, and the humanities.

Another problem the authors mention is inconvenient scheduling—community colleges usually schedule their courses at mid-day or late in the evening at times that make it difficult for people with families or other responsibilities to tend to.

Given these challenges, many are choosing to enroll in for-profit schools like ITT Technical Institute, Bryant & Stratton College, or the University of Phoenix. These schools offer fast-track programs using convenient “block scheduling” and great placement rates, but they can be quite expensive.

The authors point to a model example in Tennessee that combines the best of public schools with the speed and good placement rates of private institutions. Tennessee’s community college system split its one-year and two-year programs, so that it operates 13 academically oriented community colleges, and 27 separate Technology Centers. These Tech Centers specialize in one-year certifications in high-demand technical fields such as accounting, computer networking, drafting and CAD technology, industrial electricity, and nursing. Students pay around $2,400 per year, and the state subsidizes the rest. Classes are scheduled in blocks at convenient hours, and the Centers offer rotations and apprenticeships with employers in the state. A data system tracks graduate placement and starting salary levels, which provides information that helps the Centers adapt their courses to changing market needs.

From the article:

The results are impressive. About 75 percent of students who enroll at Tech Centers graduate, and 83 percent of those graduates get jobs in their fields of study and are still in those jobs a year later. Tech Centers, in other words, outperform most for-profit schools, and do so at a fraction of the cost.

The article argues that this Tech Center model can be replicated across the nation and can serve those workers who already have a basic level of education and skills, but who need a fast “skill upgrade” to meet the demands of today’s economy. And, it argues, the federal government can and should play a role in helping do bring about that change.

From the article:

Buried in the recently passed health care reconciliation bill is $2 billion for a grant program for community colleges, over which the Obama administration enjoys considerable discretion. The president should announce that in distributing these grants, his administration will give priority to community colleges that re-engineer their one- and two-year degree programs to stress timely graduation, job placement, and tracking the careers of those who graduate.

Corporate Voices for Working Families believes that obtaining postsecondary education is critical for the workforce of the future and for America’s economic competitiveness. We are currently researching many “Earn and Learn” models in which businesses form partnerships with local community colleges to help younger workers work while getting their postsecondary education.

What other models do you know of like this, or like the Technology Center example in Tennessee? What different roles can community colleges play in addressing the skill gap in the workforce?