In a corner of the American Welding Society booth at last summer’s Iowa State Fair, an unlikely display competed with the allure of corn dogs and funnel sticks.
It was the exhibit of Elevate Iowa, an effort to fill a shortfall of a projected 7,000 workers in advanced manufacturing in Iowa by 2018 through community colleges.
“We really should be the first-choice school that people should go to to get those skills,” says Dan Martin, director of the Blong Technology Center at Eastern Iowa Community College, which teaches welding, CNC machining, logistics, computer-automated designs, and other subjects. “It’s up to us to be spreading our story of how good the training is and how good the jobs are.”
Long the overlooked and underappreciated arm of America’s higher-education system, community colleges have quietly come into the vanguard of efforts to train employees for the expanding advanced-manufacturing sector, which faces further worker shortages because of looming retirements.
“Our manufacturers are coming to us and telling us, ‘We need your graduates,’” Martin says.
Impatient with the slow pace of advanced-manufacturing training elsewhere, state labor departments and local industry associations are working to connect prospective workers with community colleges—Elevate Iowa also takes that message to the Iowa Speedway during NASCAR races—and the federal government has greased the wheels over the last three years with the $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative, half of it to help community colleges nationwide expand their advanced-manufacturing programs.
“Community colleges play a vital role in equipping our nation’s students with the skills they need to meet the demands of today’s careers,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says.
Michael Wilson is convinced. Wilson wanted to go to Purdue in his home state of Indiana, but even after scholarships, he couldn’t afford it. So he enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis.
“I could live at home and work, so it was a lot cheaper, and the program is really hands-on,” Wilson says.
By the time he applied for an internship at a local company that makes components for aircraft and industrial turbines, he beat out students from four-year universities and got the job.
“They gave us a project, and I did the process plan, gave them a tool list, and drafted designs, and sent it back within six hours,” Wilson says. “They said the other [applicants] didn’t do it right, or didn’t send it back.”
When Wilson receives his associate’s degree in May, he’ll have enough credits to bring him within a year of a earning bachelor’s degree, which he intends to get at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis before going on to get a master’s and working in biomedical or aviation manufacturing.
“I’m debt free, I have no student loans at all and I’m planning to go all the way through,” he says.
Not all community-college students are so ambitious. But for many, increasingly popular certificate programs—nearly 70 percent of which are also taught primarily at community colleges, according to the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce—can be enough, says Brent Weil, senior vice president of the Manufacturing Institute.
The Manufacturing Institute and several partners, in a collaboration called the Skills Certification System, have set a goal of awarding 500,000 industry-based certifications by next year. The initiative has already racked up 419,528, most of them from community colleges.
“We have found community colleges to be the most nimble,” Weil says. “We have found them to be truly tied to their regional employment needs, and when they are connecting with employers in their regions, they really represent the best place where individuals can rapidly get the skills they need for a job.”
In computer and information services, electronics, and other fields, certificate holders actually earn more than people with associate’s and, in some cases, even bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown Center reports.
That’s why some people who already have bachelor’s and master’s degrees are now enrolling at community colleges for workforce skills. Among students who transfer from four-year public universities, more than half now switch to a community college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks this.
“In many fields a technical certification means as much or more than a degree,” Weil says.
That’s caused a problem for some community colleges, whose students leave for well-paying positions with just certificates.
“One of the challenges we see is that the students are getting jobs before they get a degree” at a time when community colleges are increasingly being judged and funded on the basis of how many degree-holders they turn out, says Martin.
Finding people to do jobs in advanced manufacturing is essential, Weil says—whatever credential they receive. Nationwide, the skills gap is forecast to reach two million jobs by 2025, according to a February survey by Deloitte, at the very time a new report by the Brookings Institution says advanced industries are essential to economic growth.
Community colleges and manufacturing share something else: questionable reputations to overcome. Community colleges in states including Florida are working so hard to shake popular-culture stereotypes that they have removed the “community” from their names. And while 90 percent of Americans think manufacturing is crucial to the economy, Deloitte found, barely a third would want their own kids working in it.
Good results leading to higher-than average salaries will gradually change this, Weil says.
Fairground booths and NASCAR promotions notwithstanding, he says, “The best recruitment I know, better than the most sophisticated ad campaign, is a true connection between the learning and a job.”