Can Community Colleges Put Americans Back to Work?

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Students participating in Pacific Gas and Electric's PowerPathway Pole Climbing Capstone course climb utility poles at the PG&E pole climbing training facility in Oakland, Calif., June 8, 2012. Students aspiring to be utility workers from Oakland's Cypress Mandela Training Center and Workforce Institute, a division of San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, take a three week course that teaches skills to better prepare them to compete for jobs.

Update: This article has been corrected

Community colleges have long played a key role as an entryway to better career opportunities for adults in the workforce. But with the job market more competitive than ever and the unemployment rate stubbornly stuck near 8%, community colleges across the country are launching new initiatives that are more aggressive in helping unemployed Americans find jobs.

The U.S. Department of Labor is pouring $2 billion into community college job retraining courses across the United States as part its Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides a variety of resources to unemployed individuals seeking new work. The money, administered in $500 million increments between 2011 and 2014, is being awarded to community colleges to develop programs to quickly teach workers new skills and establish relationships with businesses that have job openings.

Pennsylvania, which received one of the largest initial grants at $20 million, recently launched JobTrak PA, a collaborative effort between 14 of the state’s community colleges to help retrain more than 3,000 workers around the state over the course of three years. The programs take on a different form in different parts of the country, based on the labor needs in a given area—in Pennsylvania, schools are training people in advanced manufacturing, health care information technology, or new energy jobs. The “fast-track” courses, some of which can be completed in as few as 12 weeks, offer industry-recognized certificates in various sectors, sometimes for free, to workers that meet high-school-level reading and math requirements and successfully complete an interview.

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“This is filling a large void,” says Michelle Williams, the director of the JobTrak program at the Community College of Philadelphia. “People are always saying, ‘Hey we have jobs, but do your people have this credential or that certification?’ If we can’t provide people that have those credentials or have those skill sets, those jobs remain open.”

Upon completing the program, students are paired with career coaches who review their resumes and connect them with businesses. After students land a job, the colleges track their employment status for the next six months to see whether the new training actually helped them to hold onto employment. In order to keep their grant money, schools must show that their students really are getting jobs, with some colleges aiming to successfully place as many as 80% of their retrained workers.

College administrators acknowledge that the last step—actually getting a retrained worker back into the workforce—is the biggest challenge. “[Employers] want someone who has experience,” says Sylvia Elsayed, the project manager of JobTrak at the Community College of Allegheny County. “One of the biggest issues is giving people training who have no background in it and then placing them because they have no experience.”

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Still, there are already some success stories. Brian Komlos, a resident of Conway, Pa., enrolled in CCAC’s retraining program in mechatronics after being laid off as a courier at an IT company in early 2010. In the class he learned about electrical circuitry, hydraulics, computerized control systems and how to provide maintenance to a variety of mechanical devices. By the end of the year he had a job making circuit breakers  at Eaton Corporation, an area electrical manufacturer.

“The mechatronics course strengthened my mechanical ability, for sure,” Komlos says. “It built my confidence up.”

Business officials in high-demand sectors like advanced manufacturing say that the students that come out of these programs are appealing candidates for jobs. Schroeder Industries, a mid-sized filtration system manufacturer located near Pittsburgh, has hired multiple people who have come out of CCAC’s mechatronics program.

“The kind of skills that CCAC trains people in are in very short supply in our region,” says Dan Fogarty, the human resources manager at Schroeder. “They’re in short supply in just about every area of the country. When people from the outside come in and have that credential [from CCAC], we see that as the kind of person who is interested in growing and learning with us.”

In addition to bringing on new hires, Fogarty said more than a dozen of Schroeder’s 200 employees have taken the community college mechatronics course. Both advanced engineers and workers on the factory floor benefited from the practical, hands-on lessons the course provided. Many received promotions after gaining new expertise.

“They’re learning technical skills that are in demand not just in manufacturing but even in other sectors such as energy, healthcare and transportation,” Fogarty says. “The people who have been through this course, they’re lifelong learners.”

With measurable data not yet available for how many of these retrained workers are actually landing jobs, it’s too early to say what impact these efforts will have on the slow-moving economy. Already, though, they’re giving plenty of people reason to consider checking out the opportunities available at their local community college. When the grant money runs dry, the schools hope they’ll be able to continue the newly developed courses and maintain a focus on student performance in the job market.

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“Workforce development is part of our mission, and has always been part of our mission,” says Diane Bosak, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. “What this will provide is an understanding of what kind of models do work and can help students move more quickly.”

Correction: In the original version of this story, we reported that Schroeder Industries employees paid to take mechatronics courses at CCAC. In fact, employees were able to take the classes for free through federal grant money.