Community colleges play a critical role in meeting President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college attainment by 2020. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called community colleges the “linchpin” that will ensure the vitality of our nation’s economy through a better prepared and better educated workforce.
That’s why Duncan recently joined U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez at Macomb Community College near Detroit to learn more about the institution’s innovative workforce training programs. Macomb is leading a consortium of eight Michigan community colleges that won a nearly $25 million grant designed to create and expand innovative partnerships between community colleges and businesses to educate and train workers for in-demand jobs. The money comes from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program – jointly administered by the Departments of Labor and Education.
During the visit, Duncan and Perez toured Macomb’s Michigan Technical Education Center that trains students for careers in advanced manufacturing. Afterward, they joined Macomb President Jim Jacobs – along with college staff, students, businesses and workforce leaders – for a roundtable to talk about workforce training in Michigan. Sitting in a large clean room full of equipment used on auto-assembly lines, one Macomb alum talked about losing his manufacturing job and working as a valet – well below his skill set – until his wife told him about the TAACCCT program at the college. Within a week of graduation, the student had seven interviews and three job offers – not to mention a sense of hope and restored self-confidence.
“The auto industry is not dead in Macomb County,” said Jacobs, flanked by a Chevrolet Tahoe and a Ford Focus – both hybrids.
Secretary Duncan lauded the efforts at Macomb to help supply major industries in Michigan with highly skilled workers, saying the TAACCCT grant was an investment, not a gift.
“We have to help bridge the gap between employees who want to work and employers who want to hire,” Duncan told reporters after the roundtable, calling community colleges “regional economic engines.”
Colleges like Macomb work closely with local employers like Gonzalez Production Systems and Gentz Aero in Michigan to design programs that meet the growing demand for highly skilled graduates in the rapidly growing field of applied engineering and advanced technology. In Washington, Spokane Community College is working with the Boeing Company and other local aerospace companies to improve aerospace workforce training in the entire state. And in Maryland, GlaxoSmithKline provides scholarships to encourage students at Montgomery Community College to pursue careers in the bio-manufacturing field.
Community colleges are uniquely positioned to design their curricula to match local labor market conditions, making them flexible and relevant to today’s economy and job market. They are open access institutions committed to providing job-relevant educational opportunities to a broad population of students in their local communities. And their graduates are finding that they are able to participate in a knowledge-based economy, which demands a far greater level of credentialing and skills development than ever before. These companies partner with community colleges to invest in students with the kind of expertise they need – and the students are presented with real and specific career paths.
President Obama is looking to community colleges to play a key role in increasing the number of U.S. college graduates and helping more Americans get the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in an increasingly interconnected global world. The President has called for an additional 5 million community college graduates in the next seven years, and institutions like Macomb are the key to making that a reality.
Dorie Turner Nolt is press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education