Speed puts community colleges front and center

By Justin Pope

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21 2012 12:00 p.m. MST

In this Friday, Feb. 17, 2012 photo, Brian Gasiewski, who received training at Macomb Community College, removes an external housing for an industrial shock absorber from a CNC (computer numerical control) machine at Fitzpatrick Manufacturing Co. in Sterling Heights, Mich. The high-tech job shop crafts high-precision parts for machines used in everything from robotics to aerospace to drilling. Macomb Community College lies a few miles down the road in this Detroit suburb. Sometimes it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Community colleges, long the under-loved stepchildren of American higher education, still don't get the dollars of their four-year counterparts, but they're standing very much in the spotlight these days.

Duane Burleson, Associated Press

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. — Fitzpatrick Manufacturing Co. is a high-tech job shop, crafting super-precise parts for machines used in everything from robotics to aerospace to oil exploration. Macomb Community College lies a few miles down the road in this Detroit suburb.

Sometimes it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Fitzpatrick's 93 employees are constantly in and out of Macomb, taking classes with a tuition reimbursement from the company. And so frequently are Macomb instructors at Fitzpatrick's plant to offer lessons on the esoteric technology used there that the company built a classroom, now lined with about 250 diplomas and certificates employees have earned. Company president Kevin LaComb describes the school as concierge-style job training — exactly what his workers need to keep a quality advantage over lower-cost competitors overseas.

"You tell them what you need, pretty much in a couple days, they have an instructor," he said. "Other people say, 'This is what we're offering, but we can't deviate from what we do.' Macomb customizes just what we need."

Community colleges, long the under-loved stepchildren of American higher education, still don't get the dollars of their four-year counterparts, but they're standing very much in the spotlight these days. President Barack Obama made them the focus last week when he unveiled his proposed budget, which took place at a Northern Virginia community college he's now visited four times. The president joked he'd been to campus so often that he's only three credits shy of graduating.

Why all the attention? One reason is that so-called "middle skill" jobs at places like Fitzpatrick — requiring more than high school but less than a full college degree— look like the most promising source of fuel for quickly revving up an economic recovery. Federal data show they account for roughly half of all jobs, and even when unemployment was over 10 percent nationally last year, a survey conducted by the Manufacturing Institute found that two-thirds of manufacturing companies reported moderate-to-severe shortages of qualified workers to hire. That kind of training is the sweet spot for the country's 1,167 community colleges.

But the other big reason is speed and agility. Compared to more slow-to-respond sectors of higher education, community colleges have become more entrepreneurial, flexible and responsive. Here in the Detroit area and around the country, many have mastered the art of staying on top of rapidly churning technologies and quickly piecing together curricula in fields just being born.

Most teachers aren't tenured professors but professionals plucked from changing fields. If community colleges don't have someone on staff to teach a class, they hire an adjunct. And they can move in weeks or sometimes days, earning a reputation as the only corner of higher education that really operates at private sector speeds.

In Michigan, where unemployment peaked at 14.1 percent in 2009 but has since fallen to 9.3 percent, leaders hope the agility of community colleges will accelerate a manufacturing rebound. Money is tight, but one program offers free training for companies filling newly created jobs. In return, state income taxes generated by the new positions kick back to the school for two years, and then to the state. Organizers of the program, modeled on something similar in Iowa, say it's supported 8,000 new jobs and easily pays for itself. They're trying to get a $50 million cap lifted so they can move down the waiting list of companies that want to participate.

Many Michigan students moving through such programs used to work at companies most Americans have heard of: Electrolux, Alcoa, Whirlpool, and of course the Big Three automakers and the companies that supported them. The companies where they're now training for jobs are less well-known: BioDri (alternative energy), Trans-Matic (metal stampings), Oxus America (oxygen concentrators). Typically, such companies are younger and smaller and need tightly tailored training that applies only to themselves or a very narrow industry sector.

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