Expanding the Middle

Back Commentary Jun 1, 2010 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

With California’s unemployment statistics among the worst in the nation, there’s no hotter topic right now than jobs: how to keep, expand and create them. Increasingly, policymakers are focused on so-called “middle-skill jobs.”

These are the jobs that require one or two years of training beyond high school, that make up the largest share of jobs now (and in the future) and that represent the promise of middle-class pay and stability. They are also the jobs typically offered by the smaller companies that make up 70 percent of the private employers in our region.

Even in this recession, some of these positions as nurses’ aides, building control systems technicians or medical secretaries go unfilled because workers don’t have the skills necessary. Once recovery begins, the shortage of these workers will be even greater.

Meanwhile, we have hundreds of young people graduating from high school, sometimes with marginal skills, who are facing low-skill, dead-end jobs. We have hundreds of experienced workers whose current jobs are disappearing but who have too little access to retraining for new careers.

Into this gap steps the community college system, the largest education system in the country and the one dedicated to educating all Californians. Despite repeated budget cuts, the 112 community colleges continue to play their role as a bridge between the classroom and workplace.

Many employers rightly look to community colleges to provide skills-upgrade training. Many high school graduates look to them for the career training they need. Many experienced workers look to these colleges to expand their talents — or gain new ones.

The governor’s new budget proposal recognizes the importance of community colleges and the inadequacy of their current budgets by providing $126 million to help fund the equivalent of 26,000 more full-time students.

Keep in mind, however, that these dollars come in the wake of a succession of budget cuts, $520 million or nearly 8 percent of the system’s overall budget in the past academic year alone.

That translates to course reductions and declining enrollments for the first time in five years. Some college districts say as many as 50 percent of new students trying to enroll in classes are being turned away because there is no space. This comes at exactly the time when we need to be working harder to improve the skills of our working population.

Some college districts say as many as 50 percent of new students trying to enroll in classes are being turned away because there is no space.

Keep in mind, too, that time and again the community colleges have proven to be the right partner for government and industry in developing our work force.

Take, for example, the current initiatives to develop skilled employees for the health care and clean energy industries. Each of the programs combines federal Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds with state and local funds, as well as industry and college contributions, to create the workers we need: physician assistants, radiology technicians, solar panel installers, energy auditors and technical support staff, for example.

Or consider the new air traffic control program slated to begin this fall at Sacramento City College. It will train both air traffic controllers and aircraft dispatchers, among only a few careers offering high salaries without requiring a four-year college education. The only such training in Northern California, it is the result of a three-year effort by the district and its partners to attract the Federal Aviation Commission to our region.

As business leaders, we must not only fight to preserve funding for the community colleges, but we must look for every opportunity to partner with them to develop both our region’s economy and work force.

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