Community colleges are gaining respect

Is a four-year degree the best route to good jobs? Maybe not. President Obama's emphasis on strengthening community colleges is part of an upward evaluation of these key institutions.
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Seattle Central Community College course schedule

Is a four-year degree the best route to good jobs? Maybe not. President Obama's emphasis on strengthening community colleges is part of an upward evaluation of these key institutions.

For half a century, Americans have been pounded with the message: 'ꀜTo get a good job, get a good education.'ꀝ For people like me, who came of age in the Rust Belt in the 'ꀙ70s, this meant only one thing: Go to a four-year college, get a white-collar job, and get out of the factories. This was a big change from the world of our parents. For them, economic security meant unionized semi-skilled factory jobs. For us, economic security meant bailing from the factory before it shut down and joining the white-collar workforce.

But now it'ꀙs 2010, and white-collar jobs aren'ꀙt the ticket any more. Every day, more and more college-educated workers in America lose their job to 'ꀜoutsourcing'ꀝ — especially to India, Ireland, and Eastern Europe, all of which have an abundance of highly educated English speakers capable of doing white-collar work.

So do you still need a good education to get a good job? Yes. But what is a good education? And what kind of good education will lead to a good job?

Forty years after my generation grappled with it, these questions are being revisited, especially with President Obama'ꀙs emphasis on strengthening community colleges. And the answer appears to be this: Academic learning still matters, but it'ꀙs not enough. To get a good job, a lot of people need a good technical education as well. They need to have practical, problem-solving knowledge that they can put to use in the real world.

There are still factory jobs around — 10 percent of all American jobs are in manufacturing — but factory workers today are highly skilled employees who work in a fast-paced environment where they have to be able to think on their feet. The same is true in what might be considered the factories of the service economy — hospitals, for example, where nurses and their aides must make decisions in real time that could have life-or-death results.

Even America'ꀙs innovation factories — the research institutions that generate new products — require highly skilled personnel with technical training, not just the research superstars that everybody'ꀙs always talking about. For example, at Amgen, the largest biotech company in the world and also the largest private employer in the California county where I now live, it takes many skilled lab technicians to support each superstar researcher.

The 'ꀜgreen-collar'ꀝ jobs at places like Amgen are especially important. Every city and state wants an Amgen — a large and profitable research-oriented company spinning off products, profits, and wealth. But this kind of 'ꀜcreative class'ꀝ economic development strategy falls apart if the research superstars don'ꀙt have a well-trained, hard-working cadre of technical employees to help them out.

Technical education is also especially important to people of color who come from families with modest backgrounds — a group that makes up the majority of people entering the American workforce today. Technical jobs requiring a high level of technical education provide the best hope for well-paying, stable jobs for the emerging workforce.

In other words, the path to economic security no longer leads to college — at least not the traditional four-year college that was supposed to deliver you to a white-collar job. The path to economic security, especially for the working class and children of immigrants, leads to a community college, where you can get a combination of academic education and technical jobs skills.

Yet the academic education that produces white-collar workers remains highly valued, while the technical education that offers people the knowledge and skills to take the new jobs is still looked down upon. Major state universities get lots of money; community colleges, which provide most of the technical training, don'ꀙt. This may be a vestige of the 1970s, or it may simply be the result of the fact that virtually all people involved in higher education themselves are products of the white-collar, four-year-degree factories.

Obama'ꀙs emphasis on community colleges is welcome, because this is where technical education is best provided. I myself went to a community college, and now I'ꀙm proud of our local 'ꀜVentura Promise'ꀝ program, which provides one year of free education to any high school graduate from Ventura, Calif., who goes to Ventura College, our local two-year institution. But in most places, money remains an issue. Given the struggles that states have today, it'ꀙs hard to imagine how they can give priority to both major research universities and community colleges.

Increasingly, big employers, frustrated that the public education system can'ꀙt deliver the workers they need, actually are funding technical education through community colleges. Bluegrass Community College, for example, has a campus on the grounds of Toyota'ꀙs big assembly plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. As a technical training center, it looks a lot more like a factory floor than it does a conventional classroom.

The future of education will probably look more like Toyota'ꀙs idea of a classroom than a state university'ꀙs idea. Or at least it ought to — if American educators follow the economy and focus on technical education as well as academic learning.

This article is reprinted, with permission from Citiwire, a service specializing in topics about metropolitan areas.


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