Community Colleges Seek Continued Support in Closing Skills Gap - Higher Education
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Community Colleges Seek Continued Support in Closing Skills Gap

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The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization that represents more than 1,200 member institutions across the United States, briefed Congressional staffers Thursday on legislative priorities shared by community colleges and their industry partners.

Dr. Walter G. Bumphus

Community colleges are seeking to address a mismatch between employer needs and the skill levels of available workers nationally. The AACC says that schools can help address that deficit, commonly referred to as the skills gap, by working directly with industry partners in areas as diverse as advanced manufacturing, healthcare, viticulture and petrochemical processing.

“The skills gap is nothing new but has grown more acute in many industries as the economy has gained steam, particularly where technical skills are essential,” said Dr. Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of AACC. “Community colleges are front and center in addressing these needs.”

Among the association’s priorities is a call to Congress for continued support of the federal Pell grant program. According to the office of Federal Student Aid, students will be eligible for a maximum of $5,920 for 2017-2018.

“[The Pell grant program] is a workforce development program as well,” said David Baime, AACC’s senior vice president of government relations and policy analysis, adding that it helps thousands of low-income students fund their education.

Other existing federal programs that have served community colleges well are the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, among others. It is estimated that about half of new jobs through 2024 are projected to require “middle skills,” technical knowledge beyond a high school diploma, not necessarily requiring an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

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AACC representatives were accompanied by community college presidents and industry leaders.

Cuyohoga Community College (CCC) president Dr. Alex Johnson said that his institution “reframed” itself to meet changes in local industry, in addition to forming a board of visitors designed to advise the college on workforce development needs. The board now has 38 members comprising community and business leaders from the greater Cleveland area.

“Workforce development has to be situated as a top priority at the federal level and the White House,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, graduation rates have improved due to the changes at the college, and it has seen substantial growth in the number of certificates awarded. Over the last four years, the number of certificates that the college has awarded increased from 862 in 2013 to 13,903 in 2017.

John E. Skory, president of The Illuminating Company, said that his company has been able to employ better trained electric line workers through a partnership with CCC. Skory sits on CCC’s board of visitors. The Illuminating Company is an electric utility company serving seven counties in northeastern Ohio.

“It’s a job that’s sustainable, that you raise families on, you put food on table, a roof over your head and you put your children through college,” Skory said.

The company developed a two-year pre-employment program with CCC, at the end of which graduates receive an associate’s degree in utilities technology. Students divide their time between the school and company facilities for hands-on training.

Dr. Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), said that her institution serves approximately 65,000 credit and non-credit students annually, 28,000 of whom were enrolled in career and technical education. She joined SLCC in 2014 as president.

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“The minute I got into the job I started hearing [about the] skills gap,” Huftalin said. “Everywhere I went, no matter the industry, people were asking, ‘what are you guys going to do about the training and development we need for our workforce?’”

SLCC has since developed multiple partnerships with a Boeing and other manufacturers. In developing a program to help high school students pursue a manufacturing career, industry partners developed paid externships, allowing students to gain work experience while also being compensated for the labor and time. Companies like Boeing also have tuition reimbursement programs, Huftalin said, so that students can come back to SLCC while still employed and gain new credentials or a degree, allowing them to move up in their field.

Community colleges students represented 41 percent of all U.S. undergraduates in fall 2015, according to AACC analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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